HARRISBURG, Pa. (Erie News Now) — A recent decision by Commonwealth Court ruled that Pennsylvania has fallen short of its constitutional obligation to provide a thorough and efficient education for all students. The trial lasted several months and heard testimony from dozens of school officials, experts, and many others.
“We don’t have a lot when it comes to resources here. Our district is pretty rural. For instance, we don’t have a stoplight in our district,” said Matthew Splain, the superintendent of Otto-Eldred School District in McKean County.
For the past 12 years, Splain has been navigating his district through tough decisions and budget challenges.
“We postpone things, we delay things, we use duct tape and all these tricks you can imagine to prolong the life of items,” said Splain. “We’re behind when it comes to our average starting pay. That’s a detraction when it comes to recruiting and often maintaining staff,” Splain added.
Splain says the Otto-Eldred School District has a thin tax base and receives roughly 85-percent of funding through the state and federal government. However, he says the funding is not keeping pace with growing demand.
“It’s very tough to keep moving forward when you’re just trying to maintain and keep your head above water. We’ve learned to get by with less and it really does impact the opportunities our kids see when they leave here,” said Splain. “Everyone’s stretched thin. And the need just keeps going higher and higher, and COVID- it didn’t create it- it just amplified it tremendously,” he added.
Splain is not alone. Several school districts around the commonwealth, especially those that can’t rely on a strong tax base, say state leaders have failed to provide a thorough and efficient education for all students, as required by the state constitution. In February, Commonwealth Court agreed, siding with districts and petitioners in the fair funding trial.
“Matt’s testimony was so essential for her to sort of understand that this it’s not just a Philadelphia issue. This isn’t just a big school district issue. This is an issue that impacts every district in our state,” said Margie Wakelin, Senior Attorney for the Education Law Center. “They’re not able to provide the contemporary education that they need to at this point because they don’t have the funds that are necessary,” she added.
Wakelin says Splain’s testimony was pivotal in making their case, as he highlighted the challenges and disparities his district has faced for years.
“They don’t have the local wealth, they don’t have the ability to generate funds from their property, from their incomes. And that’s a that’s a statewide problem,” said Wakelin.
Governor Josh Shapiro will deliver his first budget address on Tuesday. Splain and Wakelin hope to see a funding boost for public school districts. They, and other fair funding advocates, are especially curious to see the governor’s plan for the future of Pennsylvania’s education funding system.
“We’re in an ideal opportunity for Governor Shapiro to show the kind of leadership that we need to make this really monumental shift from an unconstitutional system, that isn’t working for so many of our students and so many of our districts, to something that is,” said Wakelin.