Gov. Wolf's budget helps close education funding gap for challenged districts like Erie
As superintendent and teacher of Erie’s Public Schools, we are proud to be part of a team of 1,300 employees that works tirelessly every day to ensure our families are supported and our students find a personal and fulfilling path to success.
In February, we teamed up in a different way to welcome Gov. Tom Wolf to Erie’s Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School as he promoted his historic proposal to make a bold and sorely needed investment in Pennsylvania’s public schools. Gov. Wolf is proposing that the state use a portion of its significant surplus to increase state funding for our public schools by $1.75 billion in order to make up for decades of inadequate and inequitable support.
About 30 years ago, the state abandoned its formula that distributed funding for schools in a way that would direct the dollars where they were needed most. Compounding that problem, in the many years since, the state failed to devote enough funding so all schools could keep up with increased demands and rising mandated costs like special education and charter school tuition. In recent years, thanks to Gov. Wolf’s tireless commitment and the unanimous support of the Basic Education Funding Commission, the state returned to a fair funding formula based more on local needs. Unfortunately, only a small portion of state education dollars are run through that fair funding formula, so the inequities remain. Without change, the fair funding formula will take decades to fully implement.
School districts like ours have borne the brunt of these failures. It wasn’t too long ago that our district was facing insolvency, a financial crisis that forced us to close schools, cut positions and eliminate programs. We advocated for ourselves, for our students and their families — and thankfully, Harrisburg listened. An infusion of $14 million in additional, recurring state aid granted in 2017 was the critical factor in giving us the ability to deliver the quality education our students need and deserve.
That additional state funding, along with “Level Up” funding for the most underfunded districts and temporary federal COVID-19 relief dollars, has allowed us to upgrade our curriculum for the first time in 20 years, provide additional supports for students and their families, lower class sizes, and begin implementation of a multiyear facilities improvement plan that will ensure all of our schools are warm, safe and dry.
But the gap still remains between what students deserve and what they have — here in Erie’s public schools and across our commonwealth. Schools are underfunded by a total of $4.6 billion every year. Well over half of the state’s school districts receive at least $2,000 less per child than what is needed to provide a quality education. That’s about $50,000 to $60,000 for every classroom. Unless things change to level the playing field, other districts will soon find themselves in the very same financially precarious position we once did.
That is why the governor’s proposal to make a major down payment this year on what we owe our students is so welcome and so necessary. Through a combination of more money driven through the state’s fair funding formula and a “Level Up” supplement that would help make up for years of unfair funding distributions, our school district would receive more than $28 million in additional state funding for basic education under Wolf's proposal. The Erie School District would receive more money to educate our students with special needs as well. The proposal would be transformative for our students, and for many other similarly underfunded districts across the state.
The students in our classrooms are just as bright, capable, and motivated as the students in any other classroom across Pennsylvania. They need — and deserve — the same opportunities and resources and they need them now, not decades from now.
This year, with state government in the strongest fiscal shape in years and surplus dollars available, it is time to invest in all Pennsylvania’s students — no matter where they live.
Brian J. Polito, CPA, is the superintendent of the Erie School District and Donna Wall is a fourth-grade teacher at Pfeiffer-Burleigh Elementary School.