Kelly Heberle, a mother of three students in Erie schools and an active member of the Parent Teacher Student Association, said her district’s barebones budget has caused small but necessary items to go missing—like eggs in the culinary class and clarinet reeds in the middle school band.
The PTSA has stepped up to fundraise but you can only hold so many bake sales, she said.
“The failure of Harrisburg to come to terms is affecting a heck of a lot of families and it’s just not fair,” she said. “Kids in Erie are already underprivileged to begin with ... they don’t need leaders in Harrisburg to be playing a standoff game.”
How did things get so bad in Pennsylvania and what will it take to keep the schools open?
Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, in his first term, proposed an historic education overhaul that would increase funding for pre-K-12 education by about $2 billion over four years. To do that, he proposed hiking sales and income taxes, and also wants to generate a new levy on natural-gas drilling, in order to ease property taxes that fund schools—all measures opposed by the Republican-controlled legislature.
Meanwhile, a new school-funding proposal intended to mend the equity gap between Pennsylvania’s poor and wealthy districts is awaiting passage along with the state budget.
The proposal was crafted in 2014 under Wolf’s predecessor, Republican Governor Tom Corbett, and has bipartisan support. In fact, state officials traveled the state seeking input from local school officials, educators, and unions as they put it together.
Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the nation that doesn’t have a school-funding formula, and instead distributes education aid on an “ad-hoc” basis, inconsistently targeting higher-need districts, said Hannah Barrick, a director of advocacy for the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.
“There’s a lot of inequity in what school districts are getting—some get $400 per student, some thousands of dollars per student,” Barrick said. “I think everybody agrees that the way we do it right now doesn’t work.”
The proposed formula would distribute local aid based on student enrollment, number of English Language Learners, student poverty, attendance at charter schools, and local taxing capacity, among other factors that drive the cost of education and aren’t really considered now, Barrick said.
Yet Democrats and Republicans remain fiercely divided on how much to pump into schools, with Wolf pushing for additional aid to restore the 2011 cuts and Republicans opposed. Legislators in the state House rejected a revised version of Wolf’s plan Wednesday, leading capitol watchers like Barrick to predict at least another four to six weeks of impasse—far longer than some districts can hold out financially.
“We’re preparing for a long haul, possibly till December or January,” said Brad Ferko, the superintendent of the Sharpsville Area School District in northwestern Pennsylvania.