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Gadfly on the Wall: Teaching in Pennsylvania’s Unconstitutional School Funding System

t’s hard not to wonder about things in my new basement classroom.

I kill what bugs I can, wipe away the damp from the desks and try to think over the rattling hum of the ancient overhead heating and cooling system.

The room is about 1/3 smaller than the space I had last year and the class size is about that much larger.

I smile for a moment remembering that after nearly a decade of litigation, Pennsylvania’s state Supreme Court ruled in February that our school funding system violates the constitutional rights of students in poorer school districts like where I teach.

The deadline to challenge this ruling expired in July.

So where’s the additional funding?

I wonder about this as I prepare to teach classes at Steel Valley School District in the western part of the state near Pittsburgh.

Plaintiffs including six school districts, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools claimed that billions more dollars in state aid are necessary to meet the state’s constitutional obligation.

And the judge agreed, but why didn’t she direct the state legislature on exactly how much more state aid to distribute and how?

I mean even Judge Judy would have done that! She would NOT have said, “You owe him money! Now figure out how much and pay him somehow!”

I wonder about that as I get sick from the damp and the mold in my new classroom space.

I wonder about it as I see the school library in my alma mater of McKeesport Area High School permanently closed, the books given away years after the librarian positions were eliminated and the space now becomes a large group instruction room.

I wonder about how students at Steel Valley will access their library now that the sole librarian for the high school and middle school has to teach additional classes reducing the library’s hours almost to nothing.

I wonder about teachers (some retired, others forcibly moved) whose positions were eliminated and the resulting impact on class size and resources.

I wonder about the increasing number of special education students, emotional support students, and English Language Learners all squeezed into larger and larger classes (often with less and less physical space) who are forced to vie with each other for a single teacher’s limited attention.

I wonder about my own daughter in McKeesport sitting in stifling hot classrooms and eating increasingly disgusting lunches.

I wonder about the thousands of experienced teachers who have left the profession for good because of poor salary, poor working conditions, heavy expectations and lack of tools or respect. In McKeesport the school board can’t even agree to the contract its business manager negotiated with its teachers because they think the business manager somehow misunderstood what the district could afford.

I wonder about school boards filled with volunteers who are charged with the task of making water into wine and often end up turning water into vinegar.

I wonder about our legislature mired in a more than two-month-old partisan budget stalemate between Gov. Josh Shapiro, the Democratic-controlled House and the Republican-controlled Senate.

Republicans (and even the Democratic Governor to some extent) want to use taxpayer dollars to pay for students to attend private and religious schools. GOP operatives have signaled that any discussion about meeting the judge’s order to increase funding will have to involve spending more on school vouchers lite (tax deferment scholarships) or the full fledged variety.

I just don’t get it. The Supreme Court case was about public schools – not private and parochial ones. Taxpayers have no obligation to pay for people to send their kids to schools that aren’t governed by elected school boards, that won’t accept all students regardless of race, gender, religion, ethnicity, etc. Why are Republicans putting their ideological priorities in front of the law? If they want to use taxpayer money for this stuff, just make it a voter referendum. Ask taxpayers if they want their money spent this way. And change the constitution so that it’s legal to do so.

Compliance with the judge’s ruling should have nothing to do with it. Instead we should look to ensure every public school district has enough staff to keep class size low and constructive. We should ensure all schools have safe buildings and grounds. We should make sure all schools have broad curriculum with plenty of extracurricular activities and opportunities for students to learn. We should make sure all students have the services they need and the opportunities to access those services.

But we’re not doing that.

We’re just playing politics as usual.

Meanwhile in classrooms across the state the situation gets worse every day.

Parents, students and teachers waited almost a decade for this ruling. And it looks like we’ll have to wait even longer for anything of substance to actually happen because of it.

Our schools are drowning and our kids inside them. No one is even looking for a life preserver.


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Steven Singer

Steven is a husband, father, teacher, and education advocate.