This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
More than 40 organizations joined forces in early October to launch a statewide campaign that calls for a fair school funding formula and access to quality education for all children, no matter where in Pennsylvania they live.
Known as the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, the coalition has a mission of ensuring that Pennsylvania adopts a K-12 public education funding system by 2016 that is “adequate and equitable,” with a focus on the importance of accuracy, stability for students and schools, shared responsibility, and strong accountability standards.
"Every child deserves a chance to succeed,” said campaign manager Kathy Manderino at the press conference announcing the effort. “We need a fair, sustainable and predictable method for funding public schools that recognizes the shared responsibility we all have – and the shared benefits we all receive – when every Pennsylvania child gets that opportunity."
Member organizations, including businesses and faith-based groups, educators, school district representatives and child advocates from across the state, agreed that sufficient resources are necessary so children can achieve success and that a collective effort is imperative, according to a campaign statement.
Last week, POWER (Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower, and Rebuild), a faith-based organizing group and one of the campaign members, attended the hearings held by the Basic Education Funding Commission, the body charged with developing a new school funding formula for Pennsylvania. Before the hearings, the organization had sent an open letter to the commission asking it to include public testimony at the sessions. After being rejected, POWER vowed an "action" at which members would speak anyway. Ultimately, its request was granted, and POWER members testified during the second day of the hearings.
In Philadelphia, the fair funding formula has been a topic of discussion for years, with many organizations having campaigned for a formula that was developed and adopted during the Rendell administration in 2008. That formula was abandoned three years later, when Gov. Corbett took office.
The Education Law Center, one of the campaign members, worked hard to help get the earlier fair funding formula established. With support from the William Penn Foundation, ELC released a report in early 2013 titled “Funding, Formulas, and Fairness.” One of the key findings was that Pennsylvania’s contribution to state education funding was one of the lowest in the nation at 35.8 percent, compared to the 43.5 percent national average.
According to the report, inequalities are created as a result of this low state contribution, forcing districts to rely heavily on local property taxes. This hurts lower-income communities as they are left unable to properly support their schools.
ELC communications director Brett Schaeffer said in an email that the organization’s involvement with the new funding campaign is an extension of its previous work.
“What we’ve seen is that the most vulnerable students – those in deep poverty, those learning English, those in foster care, those with a disability, those experiencing homelessness – are the students most harmed by inequitable funding,” Schaeffer said. “These are the students who we represent and who we will continue to fight for.”
ELC is one of several plaintiffs, which include organizations and parents, in a newly filed lawsuit alleging that the funding formula denies some children their constitutional guarantee of a "thorough and efficient" education.
Craig Robbins, executive director of ACTION United, said the current funding system has had a "dramatic" effect on Philadelphia.
A funding formula would need to take into account the ability of local communities to pay, the poverty rate, and numbers of English language learners and special needs students, Robbins said. The next step for the campaign, he said, would be to figure out what “adequate” funding really looks like, and then to answer the question: Where will the funding come from?
“A place like Philadelphia, one of the poorest cities in America, needs to have a larger share of education dollars, and the state needs to increase its share of funding because locally we don’t have the tax base that some wealthier communities do,” he said.
Further information on the Campaign for Fair Education Funding can be found at fairfundingpa.org.
Shannon Nolan is an intern at the Notebook.