Poverty costs schools

The poorer the district, the more limited the school budget. What does that mean for kids?

By OWEN WALSH
Posted 3/1/22

SCRANTON, PA — Second-grade teacher Laura Sosik has been teaching for 15 years. One of the hardest parts of her job, she says, is answering students who want to know why neighboring schools …

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Poverty costs schools

The poorer the district, the more limited the school budget. What does that mean for kids?

Posted

SCRANTON, PA — Second-grade teacher Laura Sosik has been teaching for 15 years. One of the hardest parts of her job, she says, is answering students who want to know why neighboring schools look “so much different” than theirs. How do you explain to eight-year-olds why richer students get to have better conditions than they do?

“It’s hard to explain that funding gap to our students,” she said. “Because it’s not fair, it’s not just, it’s not equitable, and yet those are the characteristics we try and instill in them every single day.”

From the outside, Sosik says her school actually appears to be perfectly fine. Isaac Tripp Elementary School, where she teaches, is the newest building of Scranton School District’s elementary schools.

“We have a beautiful building, we’re set up on a really beautiful hill,” Sosik said. “And we look great.”

But if you look past the sheen of newer facilities and into the walls of its classrooms, Sosik said that the evidence of the district’s lack of funding becomes starkly evident.

“The first [sign of underfunding] I see is the overcrowding. We have so many buildings closed due to being irreparable, and there are over 900 students in my elementary building,” she said. “I also see it in the money that I spend to purchase materials to make my students successful, because they’re not provided to us.”

She also sees it in her “most vulnerable student” who spends “most of Monday and much of Tuesday recovering from his unstructured and tumultuous weekend,” with limited mental health support.

“I don’t have anywhere to send him to help him learn the coping skills that might help him be a successful student, because we have 900 students and one guidance counselor.”

According to the Education Law and Public Interest Law centers, the Scranton district is underfunded by more than $4,000 per student, meaning it has about $4,000 per student less to spend than wealthier districts. The district has nearly 10,000 students, 71 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, according to U.S. News and World Report.

Scranton is not an anomaly in the commonwealth’s education system. Laura Boyce, Pennsylvania executive director of Teach Plus—an organization that provides leadership training to teachers—said that she gives PA an “F” for school funding equity.

“I’m actually not the first to do that. The Education Law Center does a review of all of the states’ funding systems every year, and in its most recent one, Pennsylvania got an F [for funding distribution],” Boyce said. “Our school funding system is sending less money overall to students of color, students with disabilities, students living in poverty. And because the state is not contributing its fair share to the overall education funding… as a result we’re overly reliant on local property taxes and that just really exacerbates inequities between high-wealth and low-wealth districts and communities.”

The situation is dire enough that there’s an ongoing lawsuit demanding a massive adjustment to the state’s funding formula. Six school districts and various other petitioners are arguing that the inequity across the commonwealth is unconstitutional, and that PA needs to infuse an additional $4.6 billion into its education spending in order to level the playing field.

Due to budgetary shortfalls, Scranton School District has cut its pre-K program, closed the school library and discontinued its music program. Sosik said these cuts leave her “absolutely concerned” about her students’ futures and the deficit of enrichment they could face between now and high school.

“The elimination of the pre-K program was the most detrimental cut that we suffered… we as teachers are already seeing the effects of that, because so many of our incoming kindergartners are missing those early learning skills, because they never attended a pre-K program,” she said.

Losing the library, which Sosik said used to give students “ownership over their learning” and made them excited about reading and research, was another devastating blow.

“You think you’re safe until somebody closes your library doors,” she said. “My heart is broken for some of my students, some of them will never scour the shelves of a library.”

Through working with teachers in underfunded districts across the commonwealth, Boyce said that many teachers struggle with seeing their students grapple with the effects from the PA funding formula.

“Every teacher goes into teaching to help students and see students unlock their potential and achieve their dreams, and it’s just really heartbreaking as a teacher who cares so much about your kids to see them not getting the same resources and not getting the same opportunities as students in neighboring districts,” she said. “And to sometimes even hear them asking, ‘Why can’t we have this?’ or ‘Why when we travel to another district to play sports do they have nicer facilities than we do?’”

Teachers and public education advocates were provided some sense of optimism recently, however. In his 2022 budget proposal, Gov. Tom Wolf called for a $1.9 billion investment in education spending from pre-K through college.

“I want Pennsylvania’s classrooms to be the best in the world,” Wolf said. “I know that if we work together, we can get it done. I need your help to show our state legislators why this investment is vital for our schools. Our students deserve it, and our commonwealth’s future depends on it.”

Included in that $1.9 billion would be $1.25 billion in basic education funding, bringing the total to more than $2 billion; $300 million for the Level Up initiative, which supports the 100 most underfunded schools; and a $200 million increase for special education.

Level Up serves 100 Districts in PA

Level Up is present in rural, suburban and urban districts in every region, serving:

  • 65% of Pennsylvania’s Black students
  • 58% of Pennsylvania’s Latinx students
  • 58% of Pennsylvania’s students in poverty
  • 64% of Pennsylvania’s English learners
  • 35% of Pennsylvania’s students with disabilities
  • 32% of Pennsylvania’s total student  population


Info from https://leveluppa.org/level-up-100/

“We were really excited by his budget proposal. It had a lot of things in there that were very aligned with the advocacy that our teachers have been doing for the past year and a half,” Boyce said. “The size of the proposal really takes seriously the problem and is a significant down payment toward starting to close that adequacy gap.”

Sosik said she was particularly encouraged by the sizable investment in Level Up, since her school is included among those top 100 underfunded schools.

The proposal, however, is just that. And a Republican-controlled state legislature has the final say over whether or not they will take on the investments called for by the Democratic governor. GOP leaders have already panned the overall budget as “fiscal fantasy land.”

“The irresponsible plan proposed today increases spending by $17 million per day. If I were not actually here to see it, I would not believe such a terrible idea would actually be put forward by this governor,” House leader Kerry Benninghoff said. “After years of hard work by Republicans in this General Assembly to ensure these kinds of nonsensical proposals from the administration do not become law, it is surprising Gov. Wolf still just does not get it.”

Republicans have historically criticized Wolf for his bold budget proposals throughout his career, but increasing spending on public education has been an area where they’ve found common ground in the past. Educators throughout the state are hopeful that they might find this kind of consensus again.

Boyce encouraged constituents throughout the state to contact their legislators and ask them to support the governor’s proposal, get the word out through social and local media, and in general build support and political pressure from now through the spring before the final budget is approved.

Sosik invited lawmakers with reservations about increasing education spending to come spend a day in her district.

“I wish they could spend even one day in our district, meeting the kids who are directly impacted by underfunding,” she said. “Because the students in my classroom aren’t any less capable than the students in other districts, and the students in my classroom are going to change the world. So my wish for Pennsylvania legislators is to recognize the disservice that is being done, and to appropriately fund our schools.”

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