'Moving the Needle:' Funding and Equity in the Erie School District
Funding increases still leave Erie County striving to catch up
For parents (like me) with children in our city's school district, good news arrived in mid-July. Basic education funding in the state budget was increased by $525 million, with an additional $100 million allotted for special education. In the Erie School District, that meant an increase of $15.8 million, up 17.9 percent from last year.
Time to celebrate, right? Not entirely.
"I think there's a perception out there that we're flush with cash," says Brian Polito, superintendent of the Erie School District. "But we were so underfunded for so long that this simply moves the needle toward equity and allows us to provide the kind of programming and support that a lot of other school districts take for granted."
On a sunny afternoon in late August, Polito provided me with a recent history of Erie's push toward adequate funding: "Back in 2017, we received a $14 million increase in our state subsidy, after some strong lobbying from our community for Harrisburg. At that point, we were one of the most underfunded school districts in the state — and months away from not making payroll. So that was a lifeline that really helped us stabilize our finances."
This increase led to long-neglected facility upgrades as well as the first investment in 25 years in curricular materials for teachers in our district. But even after the additional allotment, Erie was still identified as one of the "100 most underfunded districts in the state," according to Polito. To add context, he crunched some numbers: "In the 2020-21 school year, our cost per pupil was $17,473. The Erie County average was $18,265. And this was after we received that $14 million adjustment. The state average was $19,667, so the budget increase needed to get to the county average at that point was $10.1 million dollars. To get to the state average, it was $27.4 million."
Worse, the effects of poverty put the Erie School District "at the top of the heap for needs," according to Polito. Our school district is in the bottom 3 percent for median household income and at the top 3 percent regarding economic disadvantages. In a state where property taxes account for an unusual amount of school funding revenue, this can have a dangerous impact.
This year's additional allotment will allow the district to build on some (originally) short-term projects developed in response to COVID-19. For example, stimulus funds allowed for at least one mental health specialist and case manager/social worker to be on-site at each of our city's public schools. "We also expanded our after-school and summer school programming to address the learning loss," according to Polito. "And we were able to reduce the class sizes at the elementary level from 25 to 20." These improvements were initially set to be funded through 2024, but this year's state budget will allow them to continue beyond that end-date.
Structural improvements are already underway at Wilson Middle School, Collegiate Academy, and Erie High. The school board recently approved a new project at Edison Elementary as well. "The total estimated cost back in 2017 to do all our buildings was about $200 million," says Polito. "We had enough to do about $80 million, so the stimulus funds allowed us to expand that. At this point, we'll be able to do about $150 million of additional work."
One of the biggest structural problems in our district is proper ventilation — a problem that only grew more urgent in the face of the COVID-19 epidemic. "We had to stay closed for longer because a lot of our buildings did not have mechanical ventilation," according to Polito. As a dad, the thought that improved air quality could shave off a few days of surprise pandemic-parenting is incredibly welcome!
Of course, political and ideological changes often complicate long-term plans. For example, Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano suggested cutting public school funding by $9 to $10 thousand dollars per student in a radio interview last March. Just imagine the over-crowded, poorly-ventilated classrooms a funding cut of this size might lead to.
"Whether or not our students have the opportunities to be college and career-ready shouldn't depend on who is in the legislature at that moment," says Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center. As I've reported before, her organization is part of an ongoing lawsuit that could force our state to acknowledge a constitutional right to a quality education — as well as to its legal obligation to guarantee equity regardless of who is in power.
As oral arguments in the case concluded in late July, there were "questions about whether the constitution guarantees a right to education, whether it mandates a high-quality contemporary education — both of which are our positions — or, as the respondents argued, it requires a minimum basic education, without regard to the outcomes for students," according to Klehr.
A decision in the lawsuit is probably still months away. And regardless of outcome, "an appeal by the losing side is likely," according to Klehr.
In the meantime, Klehr is cautiously optimistic about the recent increases in school funding: "It's an acknowledgment by the legislature of how deep a hole they have dug in the schools by neglecting education funding for so many years." However, she is quick to point out that they need to reflect long-term changes. "These kinds of increases will need to be sustained for years to help get local districts to adequate, equitable levels of funding — and to bring Pennsylvania up from the bottom in the share of education funding provided by the state," she argues.
As nice as it has been to see headlines about our school district that aren't exclusively about infrastructural crises, eruptions of violence, or unexpected quarantines, this forward momentum will require continued effort. Some of it may come at the ballot box, some may come in the courtroom, and a lot will inevitably occur in the classroom. The choices we make — and the dollars we spend — will impact our children fundamentally.
Dan Schank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org