The public deserves to speak at Basic Education Funding Commission hearings – Pennsylvania Capital-Star
By Brenda Morales and Sylvia Witherspoon
Just beneath the hustle and bustle of the start of another school year – fundraising campaigns for school supplies, family debates about new backpacks, and wringing every least deal from chain stores – lies a persistent truth: Pennsylvania’s school districts are chronically underfunded, leaving children, families, and their teachers with financial shortfalls year in and year out.
As members of the Statewide Education Justice Team with POWER Interfaith, we see this firsthand in our communities: One of us as a Philadelphia public school parent and social worker, the other as an ESL teacher in a significantly underfunded Lancaster school district. Like so many public school community members, we live our lives addressing unmet needs, putting out fires, and trying to make the most of too little school funding. This is especially true for the 85% of our districts that remain underfunded.
Our students have spent years in schools where they and their classmates come to school hungry, jammed into a classroom with two classes worth of students. Where their teachers are expected to fix every systemic problem our elected leaders have left at the classroom door. Now is the best opportunity to deliver the education our students deserve and to win the changes our communities have wanted for a decade.
However, this battle is not just about dollars and cents. Public comment represents a critical component of our democracy, a platform that enables us, as constituents, to hold our elected officials accountable and shape the decisions that impact our future. Our demands, our voices, and our presence are vital elements of this ongoing battle for education equity.
But our perspectives and the voices of education advocates like us are being shut out of critical upcoming discussions about school funding in Pennsylvania. We’ve seen the discourse and debate about education this year, with a new budget on the line, but there have been few opportunities for decision makers to hear directly from us: teachers, parents, and students.
This month, the Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC) will hold a series of hearings in cities around the Commonwealth to address chronic and unconstitutional failures to equitably fund public schools. We demand public comments at these hearings so our voices can be heard.
As engaged community members, we expect the commission to meet its constitutional obligation to fully and equitably fund Pennsylvania’s public schools and finally, urgently end these years of racially and economically biased school funding formulas. We want a solution from the BEFC for the 2024-2025 school year to keep any more of Pennsylvania’s students from falling by the wayside.
Each year brings an unacceptable $4.6 billion shortfall in state funding that districts have to make up. We have seen firsthand how this shortfall gets passed to communities that are already underserved and to teachers who must choose between paying out of pocket for supplies or letting students go without. The first series of BEFC hearings convenes next week. It is unacceptable that public comment is not on the agenda.
The BEFC hearings present the best chance in ten years for parents, educators, and communities to get their voices heard about what kind of funding they need in their districts. But, without public comment, the House, Senate, and Shapiro administration may discard perspectives from an entire generation of students and their families.
Education is an obvious public need, so it is no coincidence that the special interests undermining public education are so closely linked to efforts to purchase political power, discount the votes of Black and Brown voters, whitewash the history of our democracy, or overturn election results. In a majority of districts in the Commonwealth, the status quo has failed our students – all of whom deserve a quality education regardless of their zip code, race, or family finances.
The fact is, there just is no compelling reason for shutting the public out of BEFC hearings. Families are directly involved in the outcome of these hearings, and we deserve a voice in the decision making process – which is why school board meetings, for all their flaws, preserve space for open public comment. Politicians often harp on giving parents and students a choice in education: Without a voice, our choices won’t matter much.
If history lends any example, this may be the last chance in a decade for our communities to have their perspectives heard about Pennsylvania’s school funding system. We can not and will not stay silent with our children’s futures on the line.
Brenda Morales is a retired ESL teacher in the Lancaster School District, and Sylvia Witherspoon, is a social worker and Philadelphia School District parent. Both are part of the POWER Interfaith Statewide Education Justice Team.
Originally published at www.penncapital-star.com,by Special to the Capital-Star