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Advocates: School Funding Needs ‘Bold Action’

State bipartisan committee wraps up 11th and final hearing

By Danielle M. Smith - Public News Service
The Tube City Almanac
November 20, 2023
Posted in: State & Region

Aaron Chapin testifies Nov. 9 at a public hearing in Bedford. He teaches fourth- and fifth-graders at Stroudsburg Area Middle School and serves as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association. (Screenshot via Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission website.)

“Bold action” is needed to improve school funding across Pennsylvania, advocates testified at a recent hearing in Harrisburg.

During public hearings on improving school funding held Nov. 9 and Nov. 16, the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission heard from people who stressed the need to set fair and adequate funding targets for every school in the state.

Aaron Chapin, who teaches fourth- and fifth-graders at Stroudsburg Area Middle School in the Pocono Mountains, serves as president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents more than 187,000 teachers’ union members.

He told the committee it is important for the new plan to be transparent and sustainable, and fix the funding inequities across the state. Chapin noted that PSEA has found many equity gaps which need to be closed.

“We took a look at 100 districts that are in the lowest (test score) quintiles, we looked at 100 districts with the lowest incomes and the 100 districts with the wealthiest incomes,” Chapin said. “We saw that these districts, with the lowest income, spend 30 percent less per weighted student than the wealthiest 100 districts.”

The commission has been gathering feedback from educators, policymakers and parents throughout the fall. Its goal is to develop a comprehensive plan to meet the requirements of a court ruling in February, which found Pennsylvania’s public school funding system unconstitutional.

Chapin acknowledged fixing the education funding system will not happen immediately, but hopes the commission will look closely at funding for special education, building construction and other educational needs.

“We also hope that they’re going to be looking to reestablish the state charter school reimbursement at about $500 million, and annually index it to meet the inflation costs that have been rising,” Chapin said. “Because over the last decade, payments to school districts for charter schools and cyber schools, they have increased by $1.4 billion.”

He added a clear timeline is also important, as well as addressing critical staffing shortages, as he describes the lack of qualified teachers and staff as having reached a “crisis level.”

Chapin said there has been a 75 percent drop in applicants seeking first-year teaching certificates in the state of Pennsylvania.

Others testifying on Nov. 9 included Mark Price, director of school funding for PSEA; Sidney Clark, business manager for Shanksville-Stonycreek School District; Lynn Shedlock, acting executive director of the Pennsylvania Economy League; Kyle Kopko, executive director, the Center for Rural Pennsylvania; and Tom Butler, executive director, Intermediate Unit-8.

At a hearing on Nov. 16, legislators heard from Tina Chekan, chief executive officer and superintendent of Propel Schools, which operates charter schools in McKeesport, Homestead, Turtle Creek and seven other communities.

She called on the legislature to create incentives for educators to pursue teaching careers in high-poverty school districts and systems.

Tina Chekan, chief executive officer and superintendent of Propel Schools, testifies via Zoom at a Nov. 16 hearing. (Screenshot via Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission website.)

“I have come before the Basic Education Funding Commission this morning to advocate for public charter school students, especially the 4,000 Propel students that I have the honor to serve,” Chekan said. “Please do not allow these students and families to be forgotten as you work to create equity in education funding.”

The 15-member commission includes six state representatives and six state senators — evenly split among Democrats and Republicans — as well as three members of Gov. Josh Shapiro’s administration.

The commission is tasked with reviewing the distribution of state funding for public education in all of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and providing a report of its findings to the state General Assembly. It has held 11 hearings.

Danielle M. Smith is a producer for Public News Service, where this story first appeared. An award-winning radio journalist/personality with more than a decade of experience in broadcast media, she is a former audio journalist with American Urban Radio Networks and Sheridan Broadcasting Networks who also hosts a weekly community affairs show “Good News” on WGBN (1360 AM/98.9 FM). Jason Togyer, editor of Tube City Almanac, contributed to this report.

Originally published November 20, 2023.

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