Pupils in Underfunded Pennsylvania Schools Persist Amidst Legislative Funding Delays

by Ryan Lee
Pennsylvania School Funding

Nylla Miller didn’t focus on the inadequacies of her schooling during her high school graduation speech. Instead, she highlighted the impressive accomplishments she and her peers had achieved.

Despite dealing with crowded classrooms without air conditioning that became more uncomfortable as summer approached — a complete contrast to the beginning of the year when heating failures made it almost unbearably cold to concentrate — they had excelled. Athletes set new records even with a dirt track that fell short of state standards.

Miller commended the 2023 graduating class of Penn Wood High School at the Hagan Arena in Saint Joseph’s University, Philadelphia, on a sweltering June morning. She didn’t dwell on the shortcomings of the Pennsylvania public schools, instead assuring her classmates and their families that they were the most accomplished graduating class ever.

“We have made our mark, not just here, but in every room we have entered,” she stated.

Nonetheless, overcoming adversities was more than just a theme for graduation.

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A few months prior, a Pennsylvania court recognized the everyday reality for students in the William Penn district and five others in the state: They were not receiving the education to which the state constitution entitles them. The court ordered an overhaul of the system, though it didn’t specify the how or when.

By seeking equity in court funding, the financially strained Pennsylvania districts were treading a familiar path in school reform. Over decades, under-resourced school districts nationwide have pursued court cases to force states to provide equitable resources.

However, these lawsuits have often proven less effective than hoped. Legislative action frequently falls short of meeting the actual cost of equalizing public education. Major reform efforts sometimes result in transient changes, but struggle to maintain momentum when political or economic environments become unfavorable.

Some states have seen advances in academic achievement and student success with increased state funding, stated Maura McInerney, the legal director of Education Law Center, which represented the petitioning districts in the lawsuit.

“We have certainly witnessed substantial investments in school funding that have resulted in significant differences,” she noted.

However, in Pennsylvania, hopes for a legislative solution rest on a budgeting process within a divided legislature. Following the court’s decision, House Democrats attempted to boost public education funding this year, exceeding Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro’s initial proposal. However, this hit a roadblock in the Republican-dominated Senate, which proposed a more conservative spending plan and attempted to promote a school voucher system, despite strong opposition in the Democrat-led House.

Meanwhile, students like Miller continue to attend under-resourced districts, grappling with their limitations.

The William Penn district used federal COVID-19 pandemic relief funds to hire a reading specialist to help address educational disparities, but this funding will be depleted this year. The district hopes to retain the position, stated Superintendent Eric Becoats, but this could entail raising taxes on a community that is already among the state’s highest taxed.

A contract for mental health services, also funded federally, may not be sustainable, a significant issue for students like Miller who have struggled to find a confidant. The need for these services has intensified, particularly among teenage girls, as the mental health toll of the pandemic becomes increasingly apparent.

Miller recalled the constant change of therapists. “Each time you had to get to know somebody new. That’s draining. No student feels like getting to know three different therapists and pouring their heart out three different times and telling your story three different times to three different people. It’s a lot to handle.”

The subpar facilities add to the challenges. Penn Wood lacks appropriate science labs, classrooms are overcrowded, and heating and ventilation systems require upgrades. Resources, including teachers and staff, must be shared among schools in the district.

The district has a 10-year plan for improving school buildings, outlining a vision for a 21st-century learning environment, but lacks funds to realize it.

“We need the resources now,” declared Becoats in early June. “Our current budget proposal that we have presented to our board does show a gap in funding.”

Miller’s classmate, Paul Vandy, was oblivious to the extent of what other students enjoyed until he and Miller visited a nearby high school with the speech and debate team. It felt as if they had entered a high school from a television show.

Featuring pristine white tile floors and hallway robots, students were provided with brand-new books and personal laptops. The campus boasted multiple gyms and an expansive, beautiful dance area.

Miller noted a stark difference that was impossible to ignore.

“I think I even wrote down in a journal when I got home the similarities and differences between our schools. And the main difference was the color of the students’ skin,” she explained. “My school is predominantly Black, and their school is a predominantly white school. And I think it was just a moment of, like, reality really hitting me — very, very heavy — of what is happening in our district.”

Vandy’s mother, Musu Momoh, reported that her son returned home troubled, discussing the impressive school library and the on-campus pool.

“I wish I had money to move to a better community, to put them in a better school,” she confessed. “But for now, this is where we are. So I just try to encourage them.”

Vandy admitted that despite trying to live a normal experience at their school, “things are kind of falling apart around you.”

His favorite club, Mock Trial, disintegrated when the coach who had been active with the team transferred to another district. The students spent the summer working with the principal to see if another staff member would take over, but no mechanisms were in place to ensure someone would, Vandy explained.

“You just have to kind of deal with it,” Vandy said. “That’s all you can really do.”

Frequently, Miller and other students have stepped in. They ensured their class had a yearbook.

Miller plans to attend Spelman College for performing arts and theater. In high school, however, stage productions received “little to no money” for support, she mentioned.

Nicole Miller, Nylla’s mother, who grew up in the district and now teaches in the same elementary school she attended, often finds her love for her community in conflict with the district’s challenges. She’s concerned about Nylla’s younger brother, who is about to start sixth grade and is already aware that things are different elsewhere.

“I don’t want my kids feeling like they’re lacking,” Nicole stated. “I don’t want you to feel less than. I don’t want you to feel like you’re undeserving of all these other things.”

Despite the deficits in facilities and resources, the school community has also risen to the challenge. Nicole’s childhood friend, a former guidance counselor, now works as an administrator at Penn Wood. But, when necessary, the administrator still steps into the guidance counselor role to assist Nylla. This has created a running joke about how many people Nylla has brought to the administrator’s office for support.

“Pulling on people to do multiple jobs, it’s just the way of the district. It’s just what people are willing to do here,” Nicole stated. “They’re not saying, ‘No, I’m not going to do that. No, I

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Pennsylvania School Funding

What issues are Pennsylvania school districts facing?

Many school districts in Pennsylvania are grappling with underfunding. These districts are often overcrowded, lack necessary facilities like air conditioning and heating, and struggle to provide adequate resources for their students. Despite this, students are demonstrating remarkable achievements.

What has the Pennsylvania court decided regarding these issues?

A few months prior, a Pennsylvania court acknowledged the challenges faced by these underfunded districts. The court determined that students in these districts were not receiving the education they are entitled to under the state constitution. As a result, the court ordered the state to amend its system, but did not provide specific instructions on the alterations or their pace.

How is the Pennsylvania legislature responding to the court’s decision?

In Pennsylvania, the possibility of a legislative solution depends on a divided legislature’s budgeting process. House Democrats, encouraged by the court’s decision, sought to inject more funds into public education, exceeding the initial proposal of Democratic Governor Josh Shapiro. However, their proposal encountered resistance in the Republican-led Senate, which offered a more modest spending plan and promoted a school voucher system, a proposal that faced significant opposition in the Democrat-dominated other chamber.

What measures have underfunded districts taken to address the challenges?

Schools in these districts have had to make do with limited resources. For instance, the William Penn district used federal COVID-19 relief funds to hire a reading specialist to help mitigate achievement gaps, though this funding expires soon. Furthermore, they have used federal funds to pay for essential mental health services, although the continuation of these programs is uncertain due to lack of funds.

How are students in these districts coping with the situation?

Students like Nylla Miller, despite the odds, continue to strive for excellence in their academic pursuits. In spite of inadequate resources and inferior facilities, these students have shown resilience and tenacity, achieving high levels of success. However, they are also acutely aware of the resource imbalance compared to better-funded schools, and the effects this has on their educational experience.

More about Pennsylvania School Funding

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LucasP July 16, 2023 - 3:49 am

we need more funding in education, full stop. It’s a shame to see how our system is failing these kids.

Sharon Wilkes July 16, 2023 - 7:15 am

My heart goes out to these students…why can’t our government prioritize education!

Mark Jefferson July 16, 2023 - 10:39 am

It’s heartbreaking to read this! Kids deserve better, come on Pennsylvania step up ur game…

EmmaJ July 16, 2023 - 3:10 pm

doesnt seem fair that the color of your skin can decide the quality of your education. we can and must do better!

Robert_K July 16, 2023 - 3:56 pm

It’s so inspiring to see these students do well in spite of everything! Theyre the real heroes here.

Becky12 July 16, 2023 - 4:33 pm

And they say America is the land of opportunity. what opportunity when kids cant even get a proper education smh


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