OP-ED: Pa.'s urban school superintendents issue call to action
There is a lot of talk in Harrisburg, from Republicans and Democrats, about growing Pennsylvania’s economy. They agree on some approaches such as infrastructure investment and workforce development, and diverge on others such as college affordability and higher wages. The end game is largely the same — bringing jobs and investments to the Commonwealth and building wealth for Pennsylvania citizens.
Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, one thing is clear: For Pennsylvania to prosper, its largest cities must thrive.
As school superintendents from the commonwealth’s largest urban areas, our 12 school districts are responsible for educating one in every seven children in Pennsylvania’s public schools. That means one of every seven future workers, business owners and entrepreneurs who graduate from Pennsylvania’s public schools is in one of our classrooms today.
The success of Pennsylvania’s pro-growth strategy — and its future — will be determined by the quality of education we provide, and the quality of education that Harrisburg is willing to invest in.
Our school funding system is badly in need of repair. The commonwealth’s share of education funding is just over a third, with local taxpayers providing the vast majority. This has resulted in deep inequities in resources. How can Pennsylvania hope to compete with states like New York or New Jersey, North Carolina or Washington, California or Indiana when they invest in their future workforce at higher rates than our Commonwealth?
Pennsylvania’s urban school districts serve a diverse population of students, each with tremendous potential and a wide range of educational needs to fully reach their potential. We are doing our part to help meet their needs. We are working hard to improve our schools and many are showing gains in achievement, college and career readiness and graduation rates. City governments have raised taxes locally again and again to help close the gap. But it’s not enough. We need more help from the commonwealth.
Our message is clear and we are bringing it to Harrisburg: We have real and urgent needs that can and should be funded this year. Help us build the Pennsylvania of the future.
The education funding formula enacted in 2015 was a great first step, but in 2019 less than $1 of every $10 in basic education funding runs through the formula. The governor has proposed $166 million in new formula funding. The General Assembly should see that bet and raise it.
Children are learning 21st century skills like coding and robotics in buildings that were built during the golden age of radio. Many contain immediate hazards that must be addressed to protect basic health and safety.
Lawmakers established a commission to thoroughly review Pennsylvania’s school construction program, PLANCON. With that roadmap in place, the General Assembly should restore funding to the program to support school renovations, repairs and new construction.
Lawmakers should act to ensure all of Pennsylvania’s children are learning in healthy environments by providing a dedicated source of funding to address issues of lead, mold and asbestos in our schools.
It’s also time to stop kicking the can down the road on charter funding reform. Pennsylvania’s charter law needs an overhaul, including setting the bar higher for charter operators. It’s not about district schools versus charter schools. It’s about high-quality schools, period. The commonwealth’s charter funding model needs to reflect that.
One example is the chronic underperformance of cyber charter schools, which are costly to taxpayers and fail to deliver for students. Thirteen of the commonwealth’s 14 cyber charter schools are on the list of the lowest performing schools in Pennsylvania. School district-operated cyber charters perform better and operate at a fraction of the cost.
Another example is the special education funding model for charters, which does not differentiate based on the needs of the students served. Even more alarming is the fact that it does not require that those funds be used for their intended purpose. Something is fundamentally wrong when monies designated to support some of our highest-need students can be diverted without accountability. The General Assembly should right this wrong when the special education formula is updated this year.
Pennsylvania’s cities were the hubs of technology and innovation 150 years ago and can help the commonwealth lead the nation once again. High-quality urban schools are the path to Pennsylvania’s future. We are ready and willing to work with the General Assembly to make this possible.
— This op-ed was co-authored by 12 of Pennsylvania’s large, urban school superintendents: Dr. William R. Hite, The School District of Philadelphia; Thomas Parker, Allentown School District; Dr. Samuel Lee, Bensalem Township School District; Dr. Joseph Roy, Bethlehem Area School District; Dr. Juan R. Baughn, Chester Upland School District; Amy Arcurio, Greater Johnstown School District; Dr. Sybil Knight-Burney, Harrisburg School District; Dr. Damaris Rau, School District of Lancaster; Dr. Anthony Hamlet, Pittsburgh Public Schools; Steven Rodriquez, Pottstown School District; Dr. Khalid Mumin, Reading School District; and Dr. Eric Holmes, School District of the City of York.