Op-Ed: School funding shouldn’t be ‘accident of geography’
Nov. 16, 2014 – By Jennifer Desmarais, Special to LNP – As a school board member in the School District of Lancaster, I am proud to serve my community by attending monthly meetings, participating on district task forces, and being visible in our school community.
So it was a bit of a departure earlier this week when I traveled to Harrisburg to join school board members from across the state, education advocates and public interest law firms to announce that the SDL is joining with other districts in a lawsuit against the commonwealth.
In the most basic terms, the suit argues that Pennsylvania is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public schools due to its current school funding practices —considered to be among the most inequitable in the nation.
This is not a decision our district took lightly, and I am glad for the chance to provide some context around our action. Please note, the SDL will incur no legal costs as a party to the lawsuit.
When I joined the school board, I recognized the challenges. Nearly 87 percent of our students live in poverty, including approximately 1,000 homeless children. We are confronting ever-increasing unfunded mandates from both the federal and state government. And our community has faced some tough economic times.
But I also recognized our strengths. I knew we had an incredibly dedicated teaching staff, committed parents and the hardest-working students you’ll ever meet.
I accepted the challenges of being a school board member for my children, Benjamin, Colin and Maya, and for all 11,300 SDL students, because I know how important the work of our educators, parents and civic leaders is for our students and our community.
Working with our superintendent, my fellow board members, teachers and parents, we are making real progress.
We streamlined our free and reduced price lunch program, implemented Read 180 to boost literacy skills, and adopted a new program to address the student dropout rate. This year, our high school produced a record number of graduates.
But we are not doing all we could be. And in important respects, we are struggling to provide the same educational programs and opportunities that you and I enjoyed during our own schooling: smaller class size, full-time librarians and enrichment opportunities outside of the classroom.
As the school year unfolds, and planning for next year’s budget takes shape, we’re facing a stark reality: cut programs that we know work, or raise taxes on residents who are already hurting — or both.
The simple fact is the School District of Lancaster, like many high-poverty communities in this state, cannot generate the local resources to replace funding gaps left by the state, meet the state’s high academic standards, and prepare our students for the challenges that await them.
In many parts of Pennsylvania, school funding can swing by thousands of dollars per student, just within a few miles. The school funding lawsuit SDL has joined notes that the present scheme turns education funding into an “accident of geography.”
That’s not acceptable to me, and it shouldn’t be acceptable to our state lawmakers.
To be clear, this suit is aimed at institutions, not individual elected officials. It is important to note that the School District of Lancaster has been blessed with a legislative delegation — Senate and House, Democratic and Republican — that cares deeply about our students, and has worked mightily to deliver resources for them. But these individual efforts are not a substitute for a policy that ensures — by design — adequate, equitable and predictable levels of support, year in and year out.
As a district that strives to set the standard for urban education in Pennsylvania, we need to do all we can to push for changes in this regard.
That’s why we’re taking this important step.
Jennifer Desmarais is a member of the School District of Lancaster board, and a mother of three.