It's a challenge of enormous consequences.
A judge has ruled Pennsylvania's system for funding public schools unconstitutional.
So what's being done to address that?
We'll examine the issues and speak with stakeholders, the school leaders affected and lawmakers tasked with finding a solution.
Tonight, Lehigh Valley News.com and PBS 39 present a special community conversation paying for public schools.
Now here's your host, Brittany Sweeney.
Good evening and welcome.
In February, an eight year legal battle ended when a judge ruled Pennsylvania's school funding system unconstitutional.
It was a decision that shook Harrisburg and rang through every corner of the commonwealth.
Tonight, we'll take a deeper look.
I'm Brittany Sweeney.
We are bringing together several stakeholders coming to you live from the Universal Public Media Center in Bethlehem and streaming on LehighValleyNews.com.
In issuing her ruling, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ordered an overhaul of the education funding system.
As to the reason why she put it like this.
Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes.
As a result of these disparities, petitioners and students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.
The case was brought by several urban and rural schools, parents and advocacy groups who argued that allocating money for public education was discriminatory and unfair.
While the ruling could transform the way the state funds our schools, it doesn't mandate the way to get there.
We'll look into that.
We'll speak with people involved in the lawsuit with school leaders whose districts are underfunded, with charter schools entitled to a piece of the pie.
And with lawmakers now ordered to devise a structure to address the inequities.
Will also discuss Governor Josh Shapiro's proposed budget for the next fiscal year, a budget that includes nearly $1,000,000,000 more in education funding.
A good first step, according to many public school leaders, but still not enough in the long haul.
And now I want to welcome our first guest, Dan Urevick-Ackelsburg is a senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.
He was a lead lawyer on the case and argued for the plaintiffs during the three month trial last year.
Dan, thank you so much for joining us.
Thanks for having me.
Let's start here.
How is the funding system flawed and what was the driving force behind bringing this lawsuit?
So you explained it pretty well, that intro, which is that you have a system that's heavily reliant on local local wealth, local funding.
And we have a state with 500 school districts, a fairly economically segregated state.
And what that means is that the ability of a school district to bring to bear the resources that their kids need is heavily reliant on how much wealth they have, how big the houses are in their district, whether they have shopping malls, things like that.
The the driving force behind bringing the case was that system has failed Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that has let that has created a system where the children that need the most have the least, despite the fact that their communities actually try the hardest.
So the judge ruled the General Assembly hasn't fulfilled its legal mandate to provide a fair and thorough education.
So what was the evidence that you showed throughout this trial?
So you're going to hear from one of our great witnesses in just a minute.
But it was testimony from school leaders, from educators, talking about what they can do in their schools and what they can't do in their schools as a result of adequate funding.
Academic experts, the state's own witnesses, the secretary of Education, the deputy secretary, Secretary of education, and.
And what's actually amazing is there's a lot of consensus at trial.
There is a consensus that educators, the Department of Education experts all know what kids need.
And the question just is, are they entitled to get it?
Are kids actually entitled to get the class sizes that they need, the interventionists they need to actually get them up to speed so that they can graduate, ready to succeed in life?
Do you have any examples of those disparities between the lower income versus the more wealthy school districts?
So in Greater Johnstown, for example, in Cambria County, by median income, the poorest school district in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in a school with really high needs, an elementary school of 1200 kids, about 70% of their kids need extra help learning to read reading interventions.
And they have two people to do that for 1200 kids.
And so they simply have to pick and choose who gets those resources.
And it's not because they don't want to give them to they don't want to give the intervention to the other kids that they simply can't afford it.
What would a more wealthy school district or affluent school district have?
How many reading assistance compared to those two?
They would have what they need to actually meet the needs of their kids.
So it's not going to be a one size fits all model.
What what they would have is they would in a in a wealthy school district.
What a superintendent gets to do is at the beginning of the year, assess what the needs of his or her kids are and then hire the staff to meet that.
So unfortunately, in low wealth districts, you often need more staff because you're usually at least generally have kids with higher needs, but you actually have less.
And so in this lawsuit, who were the defendants and what was their argument?
So the defendants were anyone with a responsibility to fix it?
The first is the General Assembly.
They represented at trial by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.
And the governor was a defendant.
The secretary of education and the Department of Education and the State Board of Education, all the people that have a responsibility to fix this.
Now, those people you mentioned, this trial been go on for a long time.
Those people change.
So this case has been going on so long that we're on our third governor, I think our third or fourth speaker of the House.
So that has changed.
Their defense varied, but in a large part, their defense suggested that the huge disparities we see in how kids are doing in Pennsylvania is just the way it is.
That's just how it is.
And that's just not a matter for the school system to fix.
And so the judge ruled the other way against that argument.
And so do you expect an appeal in this case?
It would then go to the states Supreme Court.
So we don't know yet whether whether the General Assembly is going to appeal, and that's who would appeal.
I think the governor has said pretty clearly he won't.
The judge has before her post-trial motions.
And when those are done, the clock will start ticking on on whether the General Assembly is going to appeal.
I frankly just do not know.
And Dan, how confident, if it is appealed, how confident are you that that ruling would be upheld even through an appeal?
We're very confident.
So we've already been to the Supreme Court once to be able to bring this case at all.
And that was a very strong decision from the Supreme Court.
The court and at trial did an extraordinary amount of work detailing everything that was right and wrong about the system and an 800 page decision.
So we're quite confident.
And you mentioned that this has been going on for years.
Three governors since the beginning of this case.
So when will we see action being taken?
Is this going to take, you know, another couple years, maybe ten years to fix this problem?
Are we are we looking at a long term kind of uphill battle here?
Well, I would not expect this to take ten years.
You know, when this case started, a kid you know, a kid is now in high school as a kindergartner.
We can't let that keep going.
So we will do what we need to do to enforce the rights of our clients and the rights of the children of this commonwealth to have the education they deserve.
What we have said is that, you know, we know this is not going to be fixed in a single moment.
This we've done we've dug this hole for a generation.
But what we do expect is a big down payment this year on getting it right, as well as the process for finally bringing the system into compliance.
And who's the winner in this case?
Is it the students?
Is it the taxpayers who comes out on top?
Well, broadly speaking, the commonwealth is the winner.
I would say.
You know, education is the bulwark of democracy.
It's why we have an education clause in our constitution to begin with.
But practically speaking, you know, the communities that the communities in low wealth districts, whether they're urban, rural, suburban across Pennsylvania, who actually get to give their kids the resources that they need.
And of course, the kids, the kids who get to actually be given the resources so they can live up to their potential.
And how did you and your organization get involved in this case?
So I work at a nonprofit law firm in Philadelphia that has a long history in fighting for fair education funding.
And in 2011, there were really, really massive budget cuts in the state.
The General Assembly cut nearly $1,000,000,000 from public education funding, creating just chaos around the state, mass layoffs around the state.
And so at that moment, a lot of people came to us and said, can we try a lawsuit?
We had we had tried that before about 15 years prior, but but people were really desperate.
There was just really, I think, little hope that the political process was going to solve it and the constitutional rights of children were being violated.
And so people came to us and asked us to do that.
Have you gotten any feedback from the legislative branches on the ruling?
We've gotten some.
Certainly, the current speaker of the House, John McClinton, has been very positive.
She was not the defendant at trial.
It was Speaker Cutler at trial, but she's been very positive about the need for more funding.
The the the two caucuses that were defending the case at trial, the the House Republican Caucus and the Senate Republican caucus haven't said much that the House I'm sorry, the Senate Republicans have been reasonably positive, I think.
But I think everyone is waiting for the the first stage of the legal process to play out.
And, of course, the judge did not set in place a fix.
She just said it needed to be fixed.
She left that to the legislators, the legislative branch, the executive branch.
What role do you play in that and what do they need to do moving forward?
So she she while she said there's a lot of ways to fix it, she the court gave some pretty clear parameters that every child is entitled to a comprehensive, effective education.
And the court said very clearly that means enough personnel to meet the needs of children.
It means safe, adequate facilities, it means books and computers and the things that make up sort of the instrumentalities of school and it means curriculum.
So any solution has to ensure that all school districts, including local school districts, can give their kids those resources that the court's decision also said that it was going to be up to the General Assembly working with the governor.
The first chance to it's going to be provided, the first chance to fix it in conjunction with the petitioners.
So we are going to be at the table helping them bring the system into compliance.
And do you think there could be ramifications in other states after the system here is changed and this ruling in general, Could other states look at this and think, you know what, we need to change the way we do things?
Every state's different with how they fund their school systems.
That's a great thought, and I would hope so.
I would say that Pennsylvania is uniquely reliant on local funding.
So we're really one of the states that really needed the fix the most.
So we're kind of lagging the field as opposed to leave it in.
Well, Attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg from the Public Interest Law Center.
Thank you so much for joining us this evening.
Thank you very much.
We appreciate it.
Governor Shapiro's proposed budget calls for an historic increase in education funds, a $567 million increase for basic education and a nearly $104 million more in special education money.
Joining us next are two local school school superintendents to give us their views and how the promise of a better way might affect their students.
Here's more on their districts.
The Bethlehem Area School District is an urban one with 22 public schools.
It serves about 13,000 students.
More than half, 55% come from low income families as part of the lawsuit that challenged school funding.
An analysis showed BSD was underfunded by $2,743 per student.
More than $35 million in total.
In other words, that is the amount needed to adequately support students learning needs.
Then there's the Shenandoah Valley School District.
This rural district in the coal region of school, Eagle County has two public schools serving about 1000 students, with 97% coming from low income families.
It's shortfall between actual funding and what it needs is $7,027 per student.
One of the largest deficits in the state.
We want to welcome Jack Silva, assistant superintendent for the Bethlehem Area School District.
He'll become superintendent in July.
And Brian Waite, the superintendent for the Shenandoah Valley School District, who testified during the Commonwealth Court trial.
Gentlemen, thank you so much for joining us this evening.
And Dr. Silva, we're going to start with you this evening.
Let's talk about Bethlehem.
They're putting their school budget together.
There is a $7 million shortfall when it comes to funding.
So this isn't anything new.
This is something that happens year after year.
Governor Shapiro, he's got this proposal.
How could it affect your students in the future?
How could it help?
Well, first, thank you for having us, Brittany.
We face a structural budget deficit every year where we start the year with a gap.
And therefore, that sort of delays or prevents some of the opportunities that we have needs for like building projects and increased special education funding and English language learner funding and just the all of the normal expenses that the attorney mentioned go with teaching high needs students.
So those those pieces feel a lot of pressure when you have a budget deficit, so projects get delayed.
I needed services for special education students, yellow students and regular education students as far as school based mental health professionals, social workers has always become more difficult to fund, and the challenges of special education or regular education after COVID certainly aren't getting any easier.
So at the same time, we have students that need more support and some facilities that need more repair.
We're finding that it's harder and harder to have the finances to achieve those.
And we're hearing that your school needs more funds.
But then I turn to Mr. Waite here, and your school district is one of the most under-funded in the state.
Talk to us about what that looks like from day to day for these students, because you don't have those funds.
What are they lacking?
Thank you for having me as well.
That's a good question.
When I when I came to Shenandoah seven years ago, as superintendent, I had a leadership style.
I believed that I should have to lead the district and help the district.
The leadership style I know that I now have and possess.
And Shenandoah Valley School District is not one you read about in books is not what I aspire to.
It's one that's been thrust upon me.
I say now I lead by minimization of collateral damage.
Every day, every decision, whatever we do, I try to figure out how am I going to minimize collateral damage on the students in the Shenandoah Valley School District?
Let me give you an example.
When I first came to Shenandoah Valley School District, we're fortunate enough to have a four year old kindergarten program with full day program funded by our taxpayers.
We have two sections of that, two classes of that.
When I came there, we had 33 students in each classroom, four year olds.
So when I got there, we had four year olds, one teacher for each student.
No support for them.
Their first learning experience.
So what did I do?
I looked at the current staffing because I can't go out as those districts who may have funding adequate funding and hire a teacher.
So I had to look in-house.
What can I do?
Well, my first move was to say, I'm going to take an interventionist who's helping students who are struggling with reading in primary grades.
And I'm going to shift her to a forte classroom.
That lowers my class sizes to around 20.
Now, I've lost a full time intervention also for reading students who are struggling and reading in the primary grades.
So what else did I do?
I looked down at a staff number that I had that was a half day interventionalist, and she oversaw all Title one programs.
Federal programs said You're not overseeing federal programs anymore.
I'm going to make you a full time Title one teacher to help students who are struggling with reading.
And I'm going.
So I got back half of the teacher.
And I shifted the federal programs to the elementary principal.
So I made decisions that it was important for us to intervene in 4K for those lower the class sizes.
And collateral damage was I lost a 4.5 teacher to help in Title one for students who are struggling reading.
I do that every day.
So are you hopeful that this lawsuit, this these findings will help your school district in the long run?
Are you hopeful?
That is always our hope.
You were very grateful for everything.
We get any increases that we get.
We're appreciative of it.
And we're very hopeful that the results of this fair funding lawsuit will benefit not just the students in Shenandoah Valley School District, but all districts across the Commonwealth who are underfunded.
And that's kind of the basis of this, right?
Some of the schools are not getting enough funded.
Other schools are getting a little bit more, but still clearly not enough of what they need.
So, Jack, I ask you this.
Let's switch gears a little bit and talk about charter schools, because the Bethlehem Area school district has been very vocal about charter schools.
And so so what's the problem with the charter schools and how they're funded in in City XYZ?
Well, charter schools are publicly funded schools, but I wouldn't call them publicly accountable in the same way that school districts are and have different expectations in terms of how they're funded.
As you know, school districts are charge tuition for their students, the students who go attend charter schools.
And that tuition has increased, especially in the area of tuition for special education students.
Special education just grows normally, but when the tuition costs for charter school special education students is is up to about $32,000 per student.
That takes up a bigger and bigger chunk of your budget.
Plus, it's also discouraging because we pay our charter schools based on the average cost of special education services in the Bethlehem area School district, where we take every student and that includes students who are in wheelchairs, who require 1 to 1 aides all the time, some students that would require hundreds of thousands of dollars.
So our average special education costs are higher than the average special education costs of charter schools because they select students who do not have that degree of special education.
They might need some speech therapies and occupational therapy, lower cost, special education services.
But we're paying for the average.
So we are overpaying charter schools for their special education services.
Not to mention how the model does drain resources from the home school district.
And we've seen that we we just four years ago, before the pandemic, we were spending about $33.5 million in charter school tuition.
That's up to over 38 million right now.
And that is hard to keep that that growth makes it hard to keep pace with the increases in revenue and funding that you get.
So, Brian, is that the same kind of issues that you're facing in a rural school district?
Are you still facing those charter school obstacles?
And Dr. Silva makes great points for us.
For example, we have 33% of our students that are low income students.
So under what he talked about, students who have severe needs, students with autism, non-verbal students, students that may be we have deaf and hard hearing students.
So so those low incidence populations, 33% of our special education population are service.
Those we have approximately only 65 kids who go to cyber charter schools.
But out of that, 65 charters, cyber charter schools, they're mostly like speech services.
We can educate them around $3,000 a year, but we pay the cyber charter school $33,000 a year for our speech and language services.
So we have a student who's in second grade right now at a cyber charter school getting speech services.
By the time they and by the time they left our school, we're going to be paying them $330,000 for something that we could pay for, much less.
Yeah, I mean, our charter school expenses are going up even though our charter school population is leveling off just because of the rapidly increasing special education tuition, that makes it very difficult for us to have more predictive planning of what our annual expenditures are going to be.
But it has a sense that if you're a business person, you don't overpay for a service, and that is what's happening across the Commonwealth.
And it's one of my biggest disagreements with charter schools.
There are other issues related to governance.
There's other issues related to accountability that I would have concern about.
But in terms of dollars and cents, that would be one of the most clearly defined issues to be considered joining this lawsuit.
Ultimately by the school district did not.
Why was that?
We are an we're part of the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, so we do fit the need of an urban school.
But we also have some of the suburban ring of our of our school system.
We weren't a party to it, probably because a lot of the emphasis early on at least was a focus on more intensely even higher need urban schools.
But we certainly see the challenges to our revenue from low property values, increased needs from students.
So although we weren't in that, you know, as a plaintiff, we definitely were very vocal supporter and provider of information to the lawsuit.
And I heard what both of you said about charter schools.
But if public schools were doing the job they needed to be doing, would charter schools exist?
They've been around for about 20 years now.
Would they exist if the school system was perfect at that time?
Well, I think I think I don't have a problem with charter schools.
I have a problem with how they are operating.
We understand that there's opportunities and parents have choice in where they want to send their children.
But again, with a district for us, I can't make it better.
I can't fix it if I don't have the funding to help support our students.
As I said, I minimize collateral damage every day and the district has been doing that well before I arrived.
I'm not against the concept of charter schools.
I mean, they're part of the educational landscape.
It's just the policies related to some of them that need need changing.
And it's not true.
Like if we returned every student who is in one of our charter schools to our to our school district, the total amount of tuition money going out, we would be able to accommodate those students or about half of that.
So it's not a one for one.
You know, they're they're leaving us and going to a charter school.
So we're saving a lot of money on not having those students.
That's not the case.
And we believe our program there are some charter schools that are sort of different in their niche.
They we have a dual language charter school in the Bethlehem community.
They're doing their thing that's unique.
They're teaching both in English and Spanish at the same time.
We don't do that.
But then there are other schools where the niche is in is clear, and in the cyber charter schools, we run our own cyber academy and there's very little that they're doing that we couldn't do and couldn't do better.
Gentlemen, we're going to expand this conversation.
Charter schools were formed almost 20 years ago, as I mentioned, to give parents greater choice and education for their kids.
The public schools say charters are a drain on already limited resources.
They're calling for reform in the way charters are funded.
Last month, during a news conference in Bethlehem Public school leaders demanded more equitable funding for urban schools.
Here's Superintendent Joseph Roy on how charter schools affect the Lehigh Valley's two biggest school districts.
I looked at a slide for Allentown.
It's numbers there.
When you put our numbers in, there is well over $100 million a year going from Allentown and Bethlehem to charter schools.
And though I know there public schools, I don't they're not they're publicly funded, but they're privately run.
They don't have elected boards over $100 million of taxpayer money that could be funding the 90% of kids at a ten public schools are going to the hands into the hands of unelected, privately selected boards that run charter schools.
That's a waste of money as well.
Joining our panel of educators are Anne Clark, CEO of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools, and Dr. Michael Evans, director of academics at one of the largest charter schools in the Lehigh Valley Lincoln Leadership Academy.
Folks, thank you so much for joining us.
Now, Lincoln Leadership Academy has 900 students in grades K through 12 in east Allentown.
Dr. Clark, let's start with you.
So what do you say to the claims that charter schools aren't public and basically a waste of money?
What do you say to that?
Well, charter schools were started 25 years ago in 1997, and they absolutely are public schools.
The school boards are not private.
They're appointed from local communities.
In addition to that, all school board members who serve on charter schools have to participate in activity five training, which prepares them to serve on boards.
Charter school started in New York, was a great example of a charter school I led for 22 years.
It started because the achievement at that elementary school was 80% and reading proficiency and 6% in math.
And that went on for 20 years and no one cared.
It was the first conversion school in Pennsylvania.
So it was actually the first public school that was taken over by a charter school because 50% of the parents, 50% of the teachers said there was no other choice but to turn it into a charter school to change the achievement.
So when you look at achievement nowadays, PSA scores, a lot of times they're almost neck and neck.
What do you say to that?
Well, I think that the last research that we had seen from Children's First was was accurate in the data, but they did not use a growth model.
What they use was just straight AYP.
And there's a lot more that goes into that.
I agree that our urban areas are very much struggling and the poorest children have more needs.
But where we have more needs, we should have more funding.
I mean, charter schools came about and every charter school has an individual story because the local district wasn't doing what the parents needed it to do.
Dr. Evans, how do you respond that public schools that these complaints that the that the charters lack oversight and accountability that the public schools have and have to answer to these school boards and that kind of thing?
How do you answer to that?
That's an unfortunate claim.
Certainly, I've been involved in charter schools for 15 years now, and the accountability is probably stronger than the traditional school.
Every five years we're going through it.
Right now, our schools in renewal, where the home school district comes in and looks at everything that we're doing and all of the audits that we have follow the financial audits just like everyone else.
The title one audits, just like everyone else.
The special ed audit, just like everyone else, the testing, the certification.
We follow all the guidelines, all the regulations, all the rules, all the laws that any other school follows.
And every five years they get to peek in and make sure that we're following that we have a school board.
And if at any point in time we were not functioning appropriately, I'd be the first one to say we should close our doors, like let them close.
Let me ask you this.
If people don't know how they get their children into charter schools, talk to us about how that works.
How does someone go about enrolling their student into a place like Lincoln Leadership Academy?
It's a great question.
First of all, parents choose our school different than a traditional public school where it's chosen for them and they go to the neighborhood school.
Parents have to choose and decide to come to the school.
They participate in open enrollment where they submit an inquiry to the school, and then it becomes an interesting process.
We have a limited number of seats that we can offer to our home district.
So once that quota is filled, then we have to say to families, I'm sorry, we can't serve you.
And we have hundreds on our waiting list trying to get in who are unable to be served.
And horrible is the lottery process where we have a certain number of seats and more applicants and we literally have to go through a lottery process to say, you can come to our school and I'm sorry you want to, but you cannot.
And let's talk about the lawsuit and how charters play into that lawsuit.
How can they contribute to the fix of this system or contribute to the lawsuit at all?
Well, one of the things that we're asking for right now at the Allentown School District Board meeting is for all enrollment caps to be removed from charter schools.
We believe it's a civil rights violation.
So in our charter schools, they may have 1000 children on the waiting list and they have seats available inside the charter school.
But because the local district has capped those seats, the students can't be enrolled.
In addition to that, I believe that our charter schools are built on innovation.
And when we talk about our cyber schools, what a local district does in cyber is not at all what our cyber schools do and actually have done a deep dive on the testing, monitoring all of our cyber schools against the home districts who say they have cyber schools.
There's no comparison.
The achievement there.
The cyber schools are outperforming them by tens and 20% in proficiency.
I'd like to bring Jack and Brian into this conversation as well.
Overhauling the system, revamping this way of funding the schools.
What are what are the answers?
I respect all educators who are working with kids and trying to make a difference.
So that's true.
But it's an inescapable fact that a large number of charter school operators are not from the communities that are responsible for paying for them.
Many times they're for profit.
Sometimes they're part of chains, sometimes they have relationships with accounting, bookkeeping, services and facilities services that charge prices and rates that are higher than what you would expect at a public school.
But that's the financial piece.
And we could argue between the 40 yard lines.
But publics, if education is a commodity, it cannot be a community.
And having community elected and reelected and accountable board members elected by plebiscite, by the people is different than selected by members of the school.
Having hold them accountable, having the community have the school spirit, the school identity, the totality of the opportunities that are going on, and just a flat out openness.
If a student comes to us in February in a wheelchair, we don't say, you're not on a list.
We say, come on in.
We're responsible for taking you at a very high rate of expense for the school.
It is not the same thing.
There are two separate systems of operating and financing schools in Pennsylvania, and any business person will tell you when you have two competing systems trying to do the same thing, there's going to be waste, duplication, and some people winning and losing over those finite resource.
So is that good charter versus bad?
You know, these charters are good.
These charters are bad.
Or do we find a happy medium?
There are charters, and I just mentioned one.
We're renewing the dual language charter school here in Bethlehem, right over on Broad Street.
We look at their charter, we look at their data, we look at all the financials, just like we were mentioning before.
But there were years when we renewed charter schools and we had recommendations that weren't followed.
We had things where could you just follow our calendar or just can you use the same bus schedule or can you keep an eye on the expense?
Is that that affect our community and the taxpayers are paying them?
No, no, no.
And we had no recourse.
Now, you go to the charter appeals board in Harrisburg and make your case.
But for the longest time, that was that that deck was stacked with pro charter school people.
And every time our school board chose not to renew a charter, it it went nowhere.
So after a while, you start thinking, well, that process really isn't working for the public school system.
So again, I respect charters, nature of being able to do what public schools might not be able to do at a particular curricular design or something like that.
But as a general rule of operating two public systems, publicly funded systems by two different sets of rules, I don't think that's fair to the public school system, which has greater accountability and greater responsibility.
Dr. Clark, you were shaking your head through some of that.
Would you like to weigh in?
Well, we believe, of course, that the funding is for the child.
And so where the child goes to school, the funding should go.
We don't believe that the taxes are meant to fund districts.
And I think that's a big difference.
You know, we're always going to have some things that we don't agree on.
And I try to always stand on the place where we do agree.
I mean, education is the most critical part of Pennsylvania.
And really, our education system has been dumped on for the last ten years.
We can see that 10,000 teachers, 2011, we had 11,000 teachers going for certification.
This year, we only had 4000.
I mean, so definitely what we're doing in Pennsylvania needs to change drastically.
We, of course, believe that Charter schools have a big part of that.
There's 183 charter schools.
A handful of them are what are considered managed schools.
But the majority of those charter schools are not managed.
They means that it's an independent charter school with no back office.
And any any organization nonprofit can use consultants, districts, use consultants, all the time to do budget or training.
So to say that because we use a back office to do finance, all nonprofits do that and it shouldn't be that we're not allowed to do that.
It's the comparable cost of that service.
Yes, we do have contracted services.
Yes, we do those things.
But the efficiency of managing a payroll department in a school that is a public school that does that internally versus the cost of managing payroll in a charter school that does it in a contracted basis.
And you compare those costs for no businessman and whatever except the overpayment for the management of the payroll system.
It's just not part of an efficient system that the taxpayers are on the hook for.
Dr. Evans, it looks like you want to weigh in here.
A few things that I think are important to clarify.
We receive every student comes when we have seats available because of our cap.
When we have seats available, we have students who were educating three times the special education number that you mentioned.
We don't give you all of our information to say, this child, this child, this child.
But we do serve children with profound needs, with wheelchairs, etc..
So that concerns me.
I think I'm also saying we're tasked by the law to be innovative, to do things differently, to provide new opportunities and fresh perspectives in education.
So if a superintendent says do things like our district, that's almost inherently different than what we're tasked to do.
And lastly, it just seems as though some of the concern or maybe even hostility towards charter schools makes it so difficult for the charter school in the traditional public school to work together, which is part of the spirit of the law, that there wouldn't be there would be the level of competition.
I get it.
But there would be a collaboration so our communities would be better and stronger.
But we're in the same district.
We serve students from Bethlehem, but it's it's we serve we're not in your district, but we serve students from Bethlehem.
We would love to partner with Bethlehem to say, how can we serve Bethlehem students better?
But but becomes a challenge when the conversation is very difficult to have.
So when it comes to funding our schools, can both sides of the aisle come together to find some type of solution to this?
The charters, the public schools, although they all fall under the same kind of umbrella?
We're going to have to.
I mean, that's what the court decision is saying, is that it's not equitable for children.
And we know that if it was equitable for children, we would have never had charter schools in the first place.
And so at this point, the best thing we can do is to find the ten areas that we agree on and start building for those.
We do believe that that it's not fair necessarily for the district to have to finance charter schools.
It would be much better for all of us if the state was funding our charter schools.
We could have that collaboration years ago, when the districts were being reimbursed for the tuition.
We did not have this hostility.
I mean, that's one of the reasons we have that now, there was a lot more collaboration going on.
And so it really is a funding issue that created the hostility.
But we are here and parents do need choice and not every school is for every child.
And our zip codes really should not determine where our child goes to school.
So I really hope that we can.
I love these conversations because we are at the table and at least we're finding the one or two things we can agree on and build from there.
We're going to continue this conversation.
We're going to bring in some lawmakers in just a few minutes.
It's a really great conversation and so much to be said, obviously.
But in the meantime, we continue this community conversation.
We want to thank all of our guests, of course, for joining us this evening.
And we continue this community conversation, paying for public schools on PBS 39 and streaming on LehighValleyNews.com.
I want to note that we did invite the State Department of Education to participate tonight, but they declined to send a representative this evening.
Now, let's take a look at things from the lawmakers perspective.
Governor Shapiro took office in January and during his first budget address in March, he called on lawmakers to rise to the challenges that lay ahead, particularly on the education issues we're discussing right here tonight.
Let's take a look.
But it's clear that this is not a simple task.
It's not something that any one branch of this government can do alone.
And let's be honest, it also can't be fixed overnight.
We must approach this responsibility with hope, with ambition, because this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to do right by our kids and to empower parents to put their kids in the best possible position for them to succeed.
It's going to take all of us, Republicans and Democrats, teachers and administrators, students and families, advocates and community leaders to come to the table.
It will take all of our ideas for not just how many dollars we set aside from the state for public education, but how we drive those dollars out to local districts adequately and.
Joining us now are lawmakers who will play a significant role in deciding how schools are funded and how to do it equitably.
State representative Peter Schweyer is a Democrat from Lehigh County.
He's the majority chairman of the House Education Committee.
He also is an Allentown Public school Representative.
Representative Milou Mackenzie is a Republican whose district touches parts of Northampton, Lehigh and Montgomery Counties, and she's also sitting on the House Education Committee and a former teacher.
Thank you both so much for joining us here.
So not only are you representing your constituents, but you kind of have a stake in this as well with being a former teacher and, of course, a parent as well.
So, Representative Schweyer we're going to start with you.
What kind of conversations are happening right now in the legislature with respect to the commonwealth's court ruling?
Well, thank you so much for inviting us and having such a robust conversation.
I think earlier that the conversation that we that we had heard demonstrates and was very robust demonstrates the incredible difficulty that we're having in getting our arms around everything that is education.
It's not just simply charter schools versus traditional bricks and mortar.
It's not bricks and mortar charter schools versus cyber charter schools.
It's not teachers unions versus administrators.
It's not parents versus students.
It's not rural versus urban.
All of these things are come together and the education policy is extraordinarily complex and it's extraordinarily difficult.
The one thing that I've noticed more than anything else is that the temperature gets so hot and it's an emotional one.
I have a daughter at William Allen High School.
I have a daughter itself out in middle school, both in the Allentown school district.
And it gets very emotional for folks as we talk about these things, because you're talking about our children.
And I understand whether it's a charter school advocate or a public school parent or a parochial parent.
Everybody wants what's best for their kids.
Really, at the end of the day, the only way that we're able to that we're going to be able to address this this issue in any kind of meaningful way is by turning down the rhetoric and focusing on what is largely a math problem.
We really need to focus on how we're divvying up the money, how we're able to reach adequacy for all of our schools and make sure it's done in the most fair the fair way possible.
Do you think anybody's talking about that yet?
I was in a come together.
I was in State College this morning.
My Republican counterpart, I started in Harrisburg, drove the State College, came it came back to Lehigh Valley today.
And we were having those conversations with a very different type of school district than the one that I that I live in.
We were with the rural and small school districts of Pennsylvania.
We've had conversations with the School Boards association.
We've had conversations with the business officers, with the teachers unions.
There's a lot.
There's also a commission that is just starting to get reformed to the to to work on the the funding formulas right now.
Representative Mackenzie, welcome.
This court ruling very open, open ending.
How confident are you that you and your colleagues in Harrisburg are up to this enormous challenge to kind of find a fix for the funding system for our school systems?
Well, I hate to be a Debbie Downer type of a person, but as everyone knows, the House of Representatives is very divided at this time.
And I don't really think that I've heard much.
There wasn't much input after Governor Shapiro's discussion about the budget.
We haven't broken it down and had very specific conversations about how this could be changed.
But massive change has to take place.
We've tried all different tampering of things and increased budgets every year by the billions.
This year, again, we'll have another billion dollars.
It still is not going to fix how out of whack and unbalanced things are.
Sadly, you know, my children went to public school.
They went to Parkland.
And I know Pete understands this as well.
But, you know, in the west end of Allentown, on one side of the street, my children had friends going to Parkland.
And right across the street, the same kind of houses, same kind of neighborhood.
Those children had to go to Allentown.
And even back then, in the 1980s, I thought, somehow this just isn't right.
Shouldn't everybody have an opportunity to go to a really great school?
And I don't know, to tell you the truth, I don't even know how to wrap my head around it because it is such an enormous problem throughout the Commonwealth.
When you think about Philadelphia versus, you know, Upper Merion or something, you know, there's just huge, huge differences in opportunity for the children.
As you mentioned, it could take billions to fix this problem.
Where could that money or where would that money come from?
I'm not sure.
Do you have any ideas?
I have lots of ideas, But my, my, my, my first thing.
But my first idea.
Well, yes, it's a public service.
But my first idea actually is in response to representing Mackenzie.
I don't like the term “have” to go to Allentown.
I just don't.
And this is again, where our language gets in our way of having of of having the honest conversation about funding.
So when we hear stuff like that, as a dad who went to every swim meet that I could get to this year for the Allentown School district, whose my daughter is at today at a play at Dieruff High school, even though she goes to Allen.
Fighting words in the city.
But you know, that's okay.
And who knows the incredible work and incredible effort that's happening in one of the poorest urban districts in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, that that actually kind of gets to me.
And that's what we have to avoid collectively.
And that's number one.
Number two, it really comes back down to a question of talking about adequacy, which is something that was abandoned under former Governor Corbett.
The whole concept of what do we actually need to educate our kids is no longer part of the conversation, or at least it wasn't until this court case.
What we need in Allentown is vastly different than what folks need in Northwestern Lehigh.
I toured the Emmaus school district and I actually represent two of the same school districts.
We both represent Salisbury and East Penn.
I represent Allentown, who's got several others and two other counties.
And so we had the opportunity of touring the East Penn School district.
It was amazing.
It's great that amazing class opportunities.
They had a emotional support dog walking around the high school that I played with because it's helpful for everybody if you live on the west side of Southwest 31st Street, that's where your kids go to school.
As we said, we don't have those opportunities in Allentown.
We don't think that a mayor's is wrong or at least one school district is wrong for offering those opportunities.
Not at all.
We just think that everybody should have those opportunities.
And again, it's not a question of jealousy or anger or any of those things.
It's just a question of what is fair.
Now, in order to get there now, the House Republicans and the House Democrats were the very first to what we call populate.
But name are board to the Education Funding Commission.
We did that two months ago, I believe at least the House Democrats and Republicans did it shortly thereafter.
So we were on the vote.
We just got cooperation from the Senate and the administration on naming the folks to that board.
So we are we are in the process of starting out.
And I believe the second week of May is actually going to be our first meeting.
So those are going to be public meetings.
Those are going to be available for folks.
We may take across the state and most likely will we will rotate chairs of it with the number of the Senate Republicans that are on that commission are people that we had served with in the House.
We all know each other and we all share a common goal of making sure our kids have the right, the right kind of educational opportunities.
So I think that's what everybody's looking for here.
I'm going to pause my questions and see if anybody from the audience or our guests who were up here before have any questions.
Does anyone have questions for our lawmakers this evening or comments?
We do have a question here from our audience member.
If you could please stand up to ask your question.
Thank you for having me.
My question is, I know some of the districts that are comfortable with funding have a fear that the money will be taken away from them and given to districts in need.
So how would you respond to those concerns?
A wonderful question there.
If like to, I just think that Governor Shapiro has assured the the you know, the better funded ones that they will not lose somehow.
It's going to be kept.
Right now, we have this hold harmless kind of a thing.
That's the basic education funding and some school districts, particularly out in the western part of the state, have a lot of state funding per student because they've lost a lot of their population.
But the funding has not gone down, whereas in our part of the state we have more and more population coming in and we don't have the funding to keep up with that.
But I think Governor Shapiro will make extra careful decisions so that they will not lose funding.
But again, it's just an astronomical problem.
I'm not a good mathematician, so I don't know how to balance it out financially.
But I am a huge proponent also of school choice.
And I know Governor Shapiro is as well.
He sends his own children to a Jewish day school.
And I don't think that it's equitable for just the wealthy and well-connected to be allowed to choose a school for their children.
I think every person, every parent should have that opportunity.
I really would question anyone else.
I have a question from our audience this evening.
If not, I have a question for the two of you.
Should this ruling get appealed?
Isn't that just kicking the can down the road?
It's taken us this long to make some headway in this case.
We get this ruling.
If it's appealed, Will this just the process?
I'll speak for myself.
I certainly hope it is not appealed.
I also don't really care because this does not change the fact, something that we all know is that the way that we're funding schools is broken.
So the court case was fantastic in terms of illuminating a problem, spelling it out very clearly and making sure everybody was focused on it.
And that focus is very much there.
Again, my Republican counterpart and I have been across the state having these conversations.
Some of the folks I'd spoken earlier have seen, as I said, at events.
And so even if they still believe that court case would go away, it doesn't change the fact that we know that there is a massive inequity in schools and it's something that we are going to continue to work on.
It won't it won't be solved overnight.
This will take us several years, but we we are creating goals for ourselves.
And the public ultimately is the one that will hold us accountable for that.
And I want to ask our attorney, who we had on earlier, Attorney Urevick-Ackelsberg, I wanted to ask you, what are your thoughts on that, if there is an appeal?
Is this just prolonging this this case that has been going on since you mentioned 2014?
So as I said before, we're pretty confident in in the ultimate.
So as I said before, we're pretty confident in the ultimate success of the case.
If there is an appeal.
We will we will do the work to ensure that there is no stay of the judge's ruling so that the obligation continues.
So, I mean, yes, any delay I mean, any any attempts to not comply is a problem.
I mean, this has been going on and we need to get started on it.
But we will certainly do our part to enforce the judge's ruling as soon as possible.
Are those there are there solutions, long term solutions being thrown out among lawmakers at this point?
Quite a few of them, actually.
What are some of them?
Well, it's an important question first.
Our fair funding formula that was passed a few years ago.
As it turns out, maybe isn't as fair as we thought.
Governor Shapiro’s budget was a very, very good start, but it is by no means the end of it because even even with $550 million more going through basic education fund, what we're seeing is that and again, pitting school districts against each other is the worst way that we can govern.
But that's where we're at right now.
And so when I'm looking at it and I see Allentown gets an 8.1% increase, which is wonderful.
The Parkland School district got over a 16% increase.
I have a middle school in Allentown that was built in 1871.
Like the Civil War just ended.
The new wing, too, that was completed in the 1891.
We have over a thousand children that go to that school over.
Well, almost all of them are black and brown.
That school is not considered a toxic school because it was built before asbestos was read.
It was often used in our schools.
You go across the border to Parkland.
If you look at an aerial shot of their high school, it looks like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars.
Literally, it's actually one of the trickiest things you'll ever see.
I don't think that those those families in Parkland deserve less.
It's wonderful that they have a separate wing for for math and science.
But we know that we have to provide those same things for the kids, too.
And so we are so with the new education funding formula, that formula is driving a higher proportionality of money to Parkland than Allentown.
And that's wrong.
There are ways about it.
First of all, the very successful level up program was actually written by all the Avella legislator in Allentown.
Rep Mike Schlossberg wrote a program called Level Up that that puts money into the most 100 at risk school districts.
There's a lot of districts that are right on the bubble.
The Whitehall, Copley and Catasaqua School districts are in the 130 range.
Salisbury's in the 170 range.
So we have a lot of school districts that are teetering that we also have to push money to.
We only have a little bit of time here, but what's an appropriate timeline to come to a conclusion on this?
Would you say you mean a total solution?
To put up representative flier or veteran?
Answer that one.
We have to we have to walk and chew gum at the same time.
We have to simultaneously be working on those long term solutions.
Fixing the basic education funding, making sure we have a an adequate teacher pipeline, working on facilities while putting more money into this particular budget, using the tools that are making things better, not perfect, like level up like facilities funding and and so that we don't lose another year of students to this this unconstitutional formula.
Level up works to some extent.
However, there are so many schools that really need to level up.
I would rather see a level out and have everybody be treated fairly and equally because I think each child in the Commonwealth deserves the best, the finest school and opportunity.
Let's end it there.
Representative Mackenzie, Representative Schweyer, thank you so much for your input this evening and that will do it for tonight's community conversation.
Public paying for Public Schools.
We want to thank our guests, of course, for joining us this evening, as well as our studio audience and our other guests who are in the audience there.
And, of course, we want to thank you for watching from all of us here at PBS 39 and LehighValleyNews.com.
Thanks for watching.
I'm Brittany Sweeney.
Have a good night.