The work starts now: It’s time to make Pennsylvania’s education promise a reality

By: House Speaker Joanna McClinton, 191st legislative district and Dr. Eric Becoats, superintendent, William Penn School District

Each year, kindergartners enter the William Penn School District full of the energy and optimism that only five-year-olds can bring. They are risk-takers who believe they can do anything. And they are right.

Those same joyful children often enter our schools with significant needs. They regularly come to us without a pre-kindergarten experience, and need extra help to learn to read, succeed in math, or to deal with their emotions. They often cannot count to 20, or name most of the letters in the alphabet.

Educators know these barriers are not insurmountable: tried and true educational strategies allow children to flourish. And mixing the optimism of children with the skill of professional educators is the perfect recipe for a flourishing democracy, a strong economy, and a just society.

However, hiring professionals takes funding. At the William Penn School District, like in Philadelphia, and in low-wealth communities across the Commonwealth, we simply do not have enough of it.

That means children are too often in overcrowded classrooms, deprived of the very resources we know can change the trajectory of their lives. In a district of nearly 5,000 students, for example, we don’t employ a single reading specialist.

But it isn’t just staffing. William Penn borders on Southwest Philadelphia, and like our Philadelphia neighbors, our aging schools need serious repair. The same barrier—funding—prevents us from bringing them all into the 21st century. 

As the Superintendent proud to lead William Penn and the Speaker of the House privileged to represent them and Philadelphia alike, we know this sort of underfunding is not something low-wealth communities choose. In fact, the boroughs that make up William Penn pay the highest effective tax rate in Delaware County, but because the William Penn community is not fortunate enough to be a place of wealth, the efforts of our taxpayers just aren’t enough. This is no small problem: We are more than $5,000 per student short, according to one state metric. 

These problems are not new, which is why in 2014 William Penn was one of six Pennsylvania school districts who challenged this fundamental injustice in court, seeking an end to the Commonwealth’s inadequate and inequitable public school funding system.

We always knew this funding system was morally wrong. As of Feb. 7, we know it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution too, when the Commonwealth Court declared that our school funding system is discriminating against children in low-wealth districts across the Commonwealth. The rationale of the Court was plain: all children are entitled to an effective, contemporary education, and the Commonwealth’s failure to properly fund our public schools year after year means that children in low-wealth communities have been denied that right.

With the Court’s judgment in hand, school leaders, state officials, and the general public must come together to demand a new path. On May 10 the Commonwealth empaneled a bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission to study the funding of schools. We know the task ahead is clear: We must determine how much funding is needed in every school district for modern curricula, sufficient teachers and counselors, remedial help, special education resources, safe facilities, and quality pre-K. And we must then fund that need, to ensure that all students can attend public schools with the supports to overcome challenges and reach their potential.

These are not pie-in-the sky solutions; they are the basics, but we have far to go. By the most reasonable estimate we currently have, we are nearly $5 billion behind in providing every district—urban, suburban, and rural—the resources they need.

These problems can seem intractable because our system has been chronically underfunded. They are not; they only take our collective will.

We cannot accept a system that has some of the nation’s largest disparities in educational resources and opportunities between poor students and their peers, and between students of color and their white peers.  

We cannot continue to let local wealth determine which third graders get the help they need in reading, which middle school students have safe buildings, and which high school students have access to advanced coursework and extracurricular activities.

Together, we must do better for our students and families in Pennsylvania. The time to act is now.