By Susan Spicka
On Feb. 7, in a historic victory for children, the Commonwealth Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional and must be reformed, affirming not only that education is a fundamental right for all children under the Pennsylvania Constitution, but also that students in low-wealth districts with limited local resources are currently denied that right under Pennsylvania’s current public education funding system.
All students will learn in safe and healthy school buildings that have functioning heat and air conditioning. No more children wrapped in blankets or sitting in classrooms with garbage cans catching water from leaky roofs. No more homemade box fan air filters. No more buildings closed and students displaced because of excessive heat or dangerous asbestos.
School buildings will be fully staffed with trained professionals.
The teacher shortage will end because teaching will become more appealing, with qualified educators eager to join the ranks of public school faculty. Students will be taught by ethnically, racially, and linguistically diverse and culturally relevant educators. And teachers will be valued for their knowledge and skills, fairly compensated, and given a reasonable workload.
Classroom aides who support teachers and spend their days with many of our most vulnerable children will be paid a family-sustaining wage so they are able to do this important work instead of leaving for better-paying jobs in warehouses or fast food restaurants. Bus drivers, custodians, and other support staff – critical members of our school communities – will also earn fair wages.
With enough staff in buildings, principals won’t spend their time working lunch duty in the cafeteria or covering classes when teachers are absent. Instead, they will be able to focus their skills on supporting a positive school climate, cultivating leadership, and building a vision for the academic success of all students.
Young children struggling with math or reading will get the help that they need as soon as they need it, rather than fall so far behind their peers that they could never catch up.
English language learners will receive the instruction they need to be successful academically instead of being left to struggle on their own.
Students hoping to pursue career and technical education (CTE) will no longer be told that they are out of luck because there are no slots left in their districts’ programs. Instead, districts will be able to send all interested students to the programs of their choice at Career and Technology Centers without being limited by tight budgets.
All students will have access to music, art, and other elective courses. Advanced courses will not be rationed to a select few, but instead will be available to all students who want to take them.
Students in every school will have access to a fully-resourced school library where they can learn to love to read or just to know how to find information they need. Certified librarians will staff these libraries and help students develop critical skills as they learn how to evaluate and use a wide variety of information and resources.
Districts will have the funding to ensure that students can get to and from school safely. And when students are in buildings, parents will be confident that their children’s health needs will be met because school nurses will no longer have to split their time among multiple buildings.
All schools will have a reasonable student to school counselor ratio and counselor will spend most of their time in direct service to students. Students with mental health needs will not have to struggle in silence or wait weeks to talk to someone while they actively weather a crisis. Gone will be the days of the counselor meeting with students once, if they are lucky, to help them navigate post-graduation choices.
The state will provide a reasonable share of education funding so that no individual or community will shoulder an unfair property tax burden.
Students will graduate ready to enter the workforce or pursue further education. Our educated and qualified workforce will attract businesses with good jobs to Pennsylvania and families will move here because of our high-quality public schools and bright prospects for their children after graduation. Communities in every corner of the commonwealth will thrive.
Shapiro and the General Assembly stand at a fork in the road. They will need moral and political courage to take the path required by the Constitution and invest in the future.
The people who held office before them took the other path – and we know where that got us.
Supporting public education is about ensuring the fundamentals – safe buildings, quality learning materials, enough trained adults – are a reality for every child in accordance with the law, the American Dream, and a smart future for Pennsylvania.
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