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Lawmakers to hear from Pittsburgh experts as they work to fix Pa.’s K-12 school funding system

A school hallway, with several water damaged, sagging celling tiles.
Jakob Lazzaro
90.5 WESA
State lawmakers will be in Pittsburgh this week to hear expert testimony on how to best fund Pennsylvania’s schools.

State lawmakers will be in Pittsburgh this week to hear expert testimony on how to best fund Pennsylvania’s schools.

The public hearing, scheduled for Wednesday morning at Westinghouse Academy, is one of several being held across the state this fall as part of an effort to rewrite the state’s K-12 education funding system, which a court ruled unconstitutional earlier this year.

Over the past month, members of the Basic Education Funding Commission — the bipartisan body tasked with reviewing the state’s current funding model and recommending a new one — have called upon educators, school administrators and policy experts to share their insights.

“We're hearing that it's overdue that we invest this money in our public schools, and we're hearing that we need a large influx of funding in order to get to our adequacy and our equity goals for the state,” State Senator Lindsey Williams told WESA.

As a member of the commission, Williams is among those working to determine what level of funding is needed to ensure students in every community are provided an adequate or “meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically,” as Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ordered state leaders to do in her the 738-page court decision from February.

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Penn State professor Matthew Kelly was the first expert to testify before the commission last month, as well as one of the expert witnesses called upon during the fair funding trial. According to him, a $6.2 billion influx of funds would be required to meet the conditions guaranteed to students in the state’s constitution.

Through his adequacy target calculations, Kelly determined the additional funding each school district would need to meet the state’s goals for high school graduation rates and proficiency on state exams.

According to his study, 412 of the Commonwealth’s 500 school districts lacked sufficient funding to reach those benchmarks, with the greatest shortfalls concentrated in the state’s poorest districts.

In Allegheny County, for example, Baldwin-Whitehall, McKeesport, Sto-Rox and Woodland Hills would each need another $20 to $28 million, though those numbers do not account for the districts’ facilities needs and years of deferred repairs.

A $6.2 billion influx in funding would be equivalent to roughly 20% of Pennsylvania’s current total education spending, which — after local property taxes — is the largest source of funding for Pennsylvania’s schools.

But despite historic increases in state education funding over the past few years, these boosts still pale in comparison to the increasing mandated costs districts struggle to pay, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA).

The organization reports the combined cost of charter school tuition, pensions and special education has increased by more than $6.2 billion between 2011 and 2021.

“The money is coming away from the public education system, the traditional K-12s, which often exacerbates the underlying funding issue, as well as the mandate problem,” PSBA chief advocacy officer Kevin Busher told the panel during a BEFC hearing last week in Hazleton.

Mandated costs chart vs state revenue increases.
Pennsylvania School Boards Association

Meanwhile, Busher added, state revenue intended to help pay those costs has increased by just over $2.2 billion, leaving schools with a nearly $4 billion gap.

Williams said the commission should push the governor and state lawmakers to funnel that additional $6.2 million into the Commonwealth’s schools so that they are fully and fairly funded, rather than just tweak the current formula used to distribute funding — though doing so will take time.

“We can't do that in one year, but we also can't take 20 years to do it,” Williams said. “We need to find a reasonable time period to get to that number.”

Telling the stories of real struggles

Beyond the numbers, testimony heard by the commission so far has covered a range of everyday struggles districts across the Commonwealth face, from aging school infrastructure to teacher shortages and burnout in under-resourced districts.

“In Philadelphia, we heard from a school counselor who quite honestly brought me to tears,” Williams said. “And it's not the first time within the last few weeks that an educator has brought that strong of a reaction to me, both in telling the stories of the real struggles that their students are facing, but also what they are facing.”

Ashley Cocca — the school counselor at the BEFC’s Philadelphia hearing last month — urged lawmakers in her testimony to fund preventative and responsive care for school staff.

“Where do we go with the fire that burns in us, with the tears that well behind our eyes, the emotional exhaustion that makes us question why we do this work?” Cocca said. “Staff need a safe place to process the vicarious trauma, the secondary trauma, the toxic stress.”

Williams said all aspects of school life, including staff wellbeing, must be taken into consideration when the commission issues its report and recommendations for funding reform later this fall.

Any new recommendations, however, will not go into effect without legislative approval and the governor’s signature.

In Pittsburgh, commission members are slated to hear from experts in career and technical education, as well as those in early childhood and special education.

Westinghouse, where the hearing will be held, currently offers career and technical education (CTE) programs in business administration, carpentry, cosmetology and culinary arts, among others. Pittsburgh Public Schools students can enroll in CTE courses beginning in 10th grade and earn industry certifications and college credits.

“We have both Pittsburgh Public Schools and some regional career and tech-ed centers talking about what we're seeing here in Allegheny County,” Williams said, “but also the statewide lens of what we need to make sure that students are prepared for a future workforce and those advanced trainings in high school.”

A second panel will focus on the need for additional student supports inside schools, both in Allegheny County and regionally, and highlight where disparities currently exist.

Residents can attend the hearing in person or stream it live online Wednesday morning from the commission’s website. Williams said members of the public can also submit written testimony on the website, or write directly to their elected officials.

Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.