School funding discussion to focus on addressing inequities

by Barbara Winkleman
Posted 2/24/22

Folkshul, a Jewish Secular Humanist congregation based in Chestnut Hill, is presenting  Equitable Funding for Pennsylvania Schools, a panel discussion at 10:15 a.m., Feb. 27. It is free and open to the public, in person and via Zoom. 

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School funding discussion to focus on addressing inequities


Seven years after a coalition of six urban and rural school districts sued the state of Pennsylvania over what they say is an unconstitutionally unfair system of school funding, the case is almost over. The state’s final witness began his testimony last week.

In preparation for what comes next, Folkshul, a Jewish Secular Humanist congregation based in Chestnut Hill, is presenting  Equitable Funding for Pennsylvania Schools, a panel discussion at 10:15 a.m., Feb. 27. It is free and open to the public, in person and via Zoom. 

Mt. Airy resident and well-known public school advocate Marjorie Neff will be moderating the panel discussion. 

“We want panelists to define the problem and answer further questions like how race and class play into the issue (of school funding),” Neff said.

Panelists will include Tomea Sippio-Smith of Children First, Pam DeLissio, state representative from the 194th District in Philadelphia and Montgomery Counties, and Minority Chair of the Children and Youth Committee; Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, one of the nonprofits that filed the case in the court; Carmina Taylor, former branch president of the Ambler NAACP, co-founder of the Movement for Black and Brown Lives of Montgomery County and a leader of We Can’t Wait, a statewide coalition of citizens dedicated to equity in education; and John Barnett, member of POWER Metro, a grassroots interfaith organization committed to racial and economic justice. Barnett organized demonstrations in the weeks leading up to the court case. 

At issue is the way in which public education is funded in Pennsylvania. The state contributes money, the federal government adds a little more, and the rest is acquired from local real estate taxes. According to plaintiffs, the schools are forced to rely too much upon local taxes to make up the difference between what the state and federal governments pay and what the students need.

As a result, “the gaps between the highest wealth districts and the lowest wealth districts are pretty significant,” Sippio-Smith said.  

The plaintiffs are a diverse group from across the state, including the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP’s Pennsylvania State Conference.

“What's so unique about this particular case is that it's not just a concentration of voices coming from one location,” said panel member Sippio-Smith, director of K-12 policy at Children First PA, an advocacy group for children. “[The plaintiffs] are from rural districts; they're from suburban districts; they're from urban districts, and all are saying the same thing: that because of the limited resources we have, we are unable to provide the services and tools that our students need,” Sippio-Smith continued.

“This is an issue that Philadelphia has struggled with for years, taking many different forms,” Neff said. “Right now, the thing that people seem to care the most about is the condition of the buildings.”

Neff has contended with budget cuts in the Philadelphia school system from many perspectives. Beginning as a teacher in middle school, she worked for the Philadelphia School District for 37 years. She became principal of two schools, Powel Elementary and Masterman magnet school. As principal of Masterman, she grappled with funding cuts to the school library. After working for the school district, Neff was appointed to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, a state body that at the time replaced the Philadelphia School Board.

Plaintiffs are asking the court to tell the state legislature directly that it has failed its duty to provide for equitable distribution of education funds. They want the court to further compel the state government to find a way to distribute the funds so that the education is “thorough and efficient.” Plaintiffs estimate a shortfall of $4.6 billion in school funding statewide. 

Lawyers for the state are arguing that there is not necessarily a connection between school funding and student achievement. Furthermore, they say, the state has met its constitutional obligations. 

“The General Assembly has always met our constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” said Senate president pro tempore Jake Corman. “In the last budget alone, we boosted basic education funding by $300 million.” 

Lawyers representing the state say the “fair funding” formula it enacted in 2016 to subsidize public schools addresses the plaintiff’s concerns. The formula considers factors such as poverty levels and students’ special needs, including additional English language instruction. 

But, plaintiffs say, that new calculation only applies to funding awarded after 2016. Up until then the state did not account for specific needs within each school district. As a result, the fair funding formula does not address the large disparities that accumulated during the many years prior to 2016.

For more information about or to register for the event, visit