‘Do right by our children or find new jobs’: Education advocates call for fair school funding

By: - November 17, 2021 4:12 pm

Education advocates rally for fair education funding on the Pennsylvania Capitol steps on Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021 (Capital-Star photo).

(*This story was updated at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday, 11/18/21, to clarify the petitioners’ argument in the school funding case.)

Under a clear fall sky, education advocates gathered on the Capitol steps Wednesday to deliver a message to Pennsylvania lawmakers: It’s raining in public schools.

“For school districts all across the state of Pennsylvania, it’s not already raining — it’s a doggone hurricane,” the Rev. Dwayne Royster, the executive director of POWER Interfaith, a grassroots organization of state congregations, told more than 100 demonstrators holding handmade signs.

He added: “We’ve come to speak truth to those that are in authority today; either do right by our children or find new jobs.”

Blocks away, in Commonwealth Court, Tara Yuricheck, a fifth-grade history teacher at the Panther Valley School District, testified in the school funding trial, which could change how the commonwealth pays for K-12 education.

When asked by an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case if she has the resources to reach every student who passes through her classroom, Yuricheck answered: “No.”

Panther Valley School District, which serves families in Schuylkill and Carbon counties, is one of six petitioner school districts that have sued state officials and executive branch departments to challenge how the General Assembly allocates money to the state’s 500 school districts.

The case, initially dismissed by the Commonwealth Court in 2015 and revived by the state Supreme Court in 2017, pits the schools, a group of parents, the state conference of the NAACP, and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, against Gov. Tom Wolf, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the Department of Education, Education Secretary Noe Ortega, and the State Board of Education.

The plaintiffs, represented by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and the Los Angeles-based private law firm O’Melveny & Myers, claim the Legislature maintains an inequitable school funding system by using population data from the early 1990s to allocate education funds. They don’t ask for a specific dollar amount in their lawsuit; however, they’ve requested the court rule that the General Assembly enact a new way to pay for public education.

Although Pennsylvania adopted a fair funding formula for appropriations in 2016, it only applies to new education funding. The petitioners argue for an increase in overall state education funds, saying that fair distribution is necessary for lawmakers to uphold the education clause in the state constitution, which charges lawmakers with providing a “thorough and efficient system.” The petitioners argue that current allocation practices, which they describe as “inadequate and irrationally distributed,” violate the state constitution.

Yuricheck, also a mother of two Panther Valley students, grew up in the district, and while she testified that she cares about her students, a lack of resources has left her struggling to address every child’s needs. Using outdated textbooks in a classroom with 34 students, she can’t reach them all.

As she sat in court Wednesday, Yuricheck said her colleagues were left to cover her instruction, leaving them without scheduled time to prepare lesson plans, respond to parent questions, and schedule meetings — a cycle exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has its challenges,” she said of her experience teaching in the district, adding that “there’s so much more I want to do for the kids, and I just can’t.”

Though he’s a defendant in the case and has praised previous education investments made by the General Assembly, Wolf agrees that funding disparities affect student success, and he’s called on the Legislature to run all education funds through the modernized formula.

Last week, attorneys for Cutler and Corman said that the legislative branch exceeds its constitutional mandate by investing more in education each year.

But the grassroots organizers who rallied on the Capitol steps said lawmakers have not done enough and issued a charge to legislative leaders to run all education funds through the fair funding model to ensure equitable funding for every student.

“The next time we come to these steps, we will knock on your door,” Jennifer Mattson, a reverend and Lancaster County parent, said. “And we will not stop until the only thing that you have left to do to silence us is to arrest us.”

Mattson added: “And if that continues to fail to get your attention for you to do the right thing, then we’ll do the one thing we know that will get your attention — we will vote you out.”

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