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Plan must address school staff shortages to ensure a constitutional system of public education
HARRISBURG, PA (Nov. 9, 2023) – Pennsylvania must address income and racial equity gaps in public school funding by setting adequacy targets for school districts and adopting a transparent and sustainable plan to achieve them, PSEA President Aaron Chapin testified before the Basic Education Funding Commission today.
This plan must address school staff shortages because Pennsylvania cannot ensure a constitutional system of public education without an adequate supply of well-trained, qualified educators and staff, Chapin said.
The Commonwealth Court ruled in February 2023 that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional and must be reformed. In her opinion, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer provides a comprehensive framework for policymakers and advocates to approach a remedy by identifying five essential inputs for a constitutional system of public education: funding, staffing, facilities, curricula, and instrumentalities of learning.
Within this framework, funding is foundational, Chapin said.
“Districts cannot hire more teachers, remodel buildings, purchase new school curricula, or offer better technology and classroom supplies without the money to pay for them,” Chapin said. “Therefore, it is clear that the question isn’t if there is a need for more funding, but how much.”
Scope of the problem
The scope of the problem is significant. A PSEA analysis found the 100 districts with the lowest incomes spend 30% less per weighted student than the districts in the wealthiest 100 districts. Districts serving BIPOC communities at all income levels spend less per weighted student than their white district counterparts.
In calling on lawmakers to adopt a plan for closing these gaps, Chapin noted the previous testimony of Dr. Matthew Kelly of Penn State University who used a “successful schools model” to determine that Pennsylvania has an adequacy gap of $6.2 billion.
“No one expects the state to close adequacy gaps in a single year,” Chapin said. “That would be unrealistic. But the state and districts need to plan for increased investments and how they are going to close equity gaps. It will take time, but a plan has a beginning date and an end date, and this plan should prioritize the districts in the two lowest wealth quintiles.”
Addressing staff shortages
Staffing is a significant factor to ensuring a constitutional system of public education, but this is increasingly challenging in the face of crisis-level staff shortages in schools across the commonwealth, Chapin said.
Since 2012-13, there has been a 75% decline in the number of Instructional I certificates issued to in-state graduates in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the number of emergency teaching permits has shot up by 424%.
Chapin urged lawmakers to take steps to address the dwindling teacher and support staff pipelines in Pennsylvania, including adopting initiatives to raise staff pay. PSEA supports a measure that would raise the state’s minimum salary for educators from $18,500 to $60,000 a year. Chapin also called for a $20 per hour minimum wage for education support professionals, such as bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, and paraprofessionals.
Chapin also called for measures to make college more affordable for aspiring educators, including a new teacher pipeline scholarship program and an initiative to pay education students while they complete their student teaching requirements.
“Giving school districts more money through a remedy without addressing the pipeline will perpetuate the ‘hunger games’ approach to personnel recruitment, and ultimately the underlying problem will not be solved,” Chapin said.
Charter school reimbursement
Chapin said that as part of the remedy for school funding, Pennsylvania should reestablish state charter school reimbursement of at least $500 million. Rising charter costs have fallen heavily on the 100 districts with the lowest incomes.
“In the past 10 years, tuition payments from districts to charter and cyber charter schools have increased by $1.4 billion, outpacing increases in basic education funding to districts,” Chapin said. “Fifty-five percent of these increased costs have been borne by the districts in the poorest quintile.”
School facilities are ‘essential’
Chapin said that “school facilities are an essential component of remedying funding inequities.”
He called on lawmakers to understand what facility needs currently exist, set minimum expectations for school facilities, and partner with local communities to financially support school construction and renovations.
Improvements to funding formula
Chapin said the fair funding formula adopted by lawmakers in 2015 is working to narrow equity gaps, but changes are needed to make it less volatile and more predictable. He recommended using three-year averages for poverty counts, local tax effort, and the median household income index, as well as resetting the funding base to a more current year.
Chapin also cautioned the commission against eliminating the hold harmless clause and driving all basic education funding through the fair funding formula. To do so would reduce funding for 210 districts in the poorest two quintiles, undermining the clear goal of the commission and conflicting with the Commonwealth Court decision.
Basic Education Funding Commission
The Basic Education Funding Commission, a joint commission of the Pennsylvania House and Senate, is charged with reviewing the distribution of state funding for basic education to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and providing a report of its findings to the General Assembly. The commission has held several hearings throughout the fall to gather testimony from educators, policy experts, and parents.
Chapin is a Stroudsburg Area middle school teacher and president of PSEA. An affiliate of the National Education Association, PSEA represents about 177,000 active and retired educators and school employees, student teachers, higher education staff, and health care workers in Pennsylvania.