A group of Pennsylvania superintendents, students and parents rallied inside the state Capitol for increased school funding on Tuesday, saying that, due to a lack of resources, vital programs and staff were being cut.
“We as superintendents of urban school districts came to Harrisburg today to speak with our legislature about what it is that they can do and what we can do to help them improve the lives of our young students,” said Dr. Juan Baughn, superintendent of Chester Upland school district.
Dr. Stephen Butz, superintendent of the Southeast Delco school district, told the story of a student named Brittany and her journey through the district. Butz first met Brittney a decade ago when she was in kindergarten. While Brittney struggled with reading, she enjoyed the music program that was then offered to kindergarten students.
“She was singing in the chorus that year,” Butz said. “I remember her mom– her mom was working two jobs that year just to make ends meet, but she was concerned about Brittney, concerned that Brittney get a good education.”
By the time Brittney was in fourth grade, the music program and a physical education program had been cut, the average class size had risen from 25 to 33 students, and, by Brittney’s second year of high school, the district’s staff of more 700 had been slashed to fewer than 600.
“Brittney is now a 16- or 17-year-old student looking ahead toward college, looking ahead toward being successful, and that’s what state funding [toward] education can provide,” Butz said. “We must adequately fund our schools for our students. All of our students.”
About eight years ago, the Harrisburg school district faced a $22 million deficit, closing five schools and furloughing hundreds of employees. According to Superintendent Sybil Knight-Burney, that was just the beginning.
As a new superintendent, Knight-Burney said she was forced to eliminate music, athletics, pre-K and kindergarten programs. Now, Harrisburg is in danger of losing of kindergarten completely.
“No new superintendent should have to tell her community that their neediest and most vulnerable student population would be at risk for failure because there will be no pre-K or kindergarten program to provide them with the fundamental tools needed to learn just [how] to read,” she said.
According to Knight-Burney, the lack of funding is a vicious cycle. It leads to a reduced quality of education, which contributes to parents taking their children out of the district.
“Families and businesses that have the ability to relocate often choose to do that and move to the more affluent districts, contributing to the upward spiral of real estate values there and the downward spiral that often occurs in the urban or otherwise economically disadvantaged areas,” she said.
Knight-Burney estimated that the Harrisburg district is underfunded each year by more than $35 million.
“I’m often asked, and I struggle to try and understand, ‘Why is it that our lawmakers don’t want our students in our urban districts to receive a fair and equitable education?’” she said. “I am still struggling, as my colleagues are struggling, to understand why this inequity is allowed to continue to the eventual detriment of our greatest commodity, our children.”
Several speakers at the event strongly denounced Senate Bill 2, which would allow students who live in the state’s lowest academically performing districts to use public money for private school tuition.
Alan Johnson, superintendent of the Woodland Hills school district, said his school would suffer under the proposed law, which would divert tax money away from public schools to private entities.
“We don’t just educate,” Johnson said. “We clothe our children, we feed our children, we care for them after school, sometimes we care for them on weekends. We see to their physical health, we see to their mental health, we see to their behavioral health. We do so much more than educate.”
Despite inadequate funding, Johnson said his school still holds an 88-percent graduation rate, with 60 percent of students going on to a two- or four-year college. He and other superintendents criticized wording from some school voucher proponents, who have described lower-performing public school districts as “failing.”
“And out of this building [the Capitol] came a system that says my school district is failing,” he said. “I don’t think the school district is failing. I think the system is failing our school districts.”