‘Our kids deserve it’: Wolf’s $1.55B K-12 school plan aims to address inequitable funding

‘Year after year, public educators have been asked to do more with less,’ Upper Darby Superintendent Daniel McGarry said at a Friday press conference — repeating an expectation that educators have felt for years in Pennsylvania

With students learning in outdated, overcrowded classrooms and trailers initially meant for temporary use, Upper Darby School District Superintendent Daniel McGarry says education is facing its greatest challenge — and it has nothing to do with test scores.

“Year after year, public educators have been asked to do more with less,” McGarry, an educator with 20 years of experience, said at a Friday press conference with Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative Democrats — repeating an expectation that educators have felt for years in Pennsylvania.

And now, with a $1.55 billion investment in K-12 public education included in Wolf’s proposed budget for the 2022-23 fiscal years, school officials think there is an opportunity to address inequitable funding across the state’s 500 districts.

“I want Pennsylvania schools to be the envy of the world,” Wolf told reporters. “Our kids deserve it, and our future demands it.”

Upper Darby, which is among the state’s poorest school districts, has $16,000 to spend per student, putting the school in the bottom 10 percent statewide, with local taxes at one of the highest in the state. With more than $100 million in needed building improvements, students attend classes in spaces intended for storage and two leased facilities, Upper Darby Board of Directors President Edward Brown said in a statement this month.

“Imagine what we could do with more,” Brown, promoting the school district’s teaching and support staff, said Friday. “It’s time to do more with more.”

And the conditions in Upper Darby are not exclusive to the Delaware County school district. They echo testimony from officials participating in an ongoing trial that could change how Pennsylvania funds its public schools — detailing how staffing shortages have cut back on planning time, and limited space has overcrowded classrooms.

In his eighth and final budget address, Wolf, who campaigned on education reform, entertained the idea of using an estimated $2 to $3 billion budget surplus to fund his spending proposal.

The plan includes:

  • $1.25 billion in basic education, bringing the total going through the Fair Funding Formula, which decides school funding, to more than $2 billion — or 26.5 percent of state funding

  • $300 million for the Level Up initiative, which prioritizes the state’s 100 poorest districts

  • A $200 million increase for special education

  • $373 million for charter school reform

State Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-Lehigh, who advocated for the Level Up initiative ahead of last year’s budget passage, praised Wolf’s proposed investment in education, saying, “it’s a huge investment in our 100 poorest school districts.”

“I think one of the big misnomers about educational funding is that it’s an urban problem exclusively. It’s only Philly, Reading, Allentown, and Erie,” Schlossberg told the Capital-Star. “The vast majority of school districts in Level Up are not only represented by Republicans but are in rural counties.”

Schlossberg recommended that lawmakers who think schools receive adequate funding send their children to the Allentown School District, “where the heater sometimes works, where you’ve got 30 children in a classroom that was designed for 20, and that was designed in the Civil War.”

“And then, I would encourage them to send their kids back to their home school district where they have every resource that they could ask for,” Schlossberg said. “Because there is no universe in which kids who attend the Allentown School District get the same resources as a kid who attends a wealthier, suburban school district. And that goes for any kid who attends a chunk of the schools in a lot of the extremely rural counties in Pennsylvania.”

The Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, also praised Wolf’s spending proposal, saying that increasing state education spending could support teachers and school professionals — especially after the COVID-19 pandemic upended traditional learning and instruction models.

“The word robust came into my mind — wow. Thank you, Gov. Wolf,” Edward Albert, executive director for the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, which represents more than 100 districts, told the Capital-Star during a phone interview. “As a person who campaigned on education, he certainly stepped up to the plate and delivered on that.”

Albert, who has 38 years of experience in education, added: “The big question is — will we get that?”

It’s not uncommon for districts to cut staff and course offerings to accommodate limited funding, Albert said, adding that he’s proud of the districts he represents for being able to provide for students despite the restrictions.

“Sometimes, we get beaten up on that, but I mean, people do care, and people are trying their best,” he said. “But if you take two kids that are going to be leaving to different schools and then go on to college, one is going to be a little bit more ahead of the curve than the other based on resources and academic opportunities.”

Legislative Republicans, who hold the majority in Harrisburg, have already started to push back on Wolf’s proposal and caution school districts against budgeting based on the initial spending outline. They’ve accused Wolf of using financial projections “not based in reality.”

“People tend to see what the governor proposes and start budgeting off that,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, told reporters last week. “They should not. It won’t be anywhere remotely close to that, but it will be one that does meet the needs and again, does not mortgage the future at the same time.”