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Lehigh Valley school officials, education advocates ask for funding fairness in legislative hearing

Left to right: Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Fueini-Hetten, Allentown Schools Superintendent Carol Birks and Bethlehem Area Schools Superintendent Jack Silva
Sarah Mueller
Left to right: Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Fueini-Hetten, Allentown Schools Superintendent Carol Birks and Bethlehem Area Schools Superintendent Jack Silva testify at Basic Education Funding Commission hearing in Allentown.

  • The gap between the richest and poorest districts has grown by $2 billion, an expert testified in Allentown
  • The state is under a court order to fix how it funds school districts
  • Pa. lawmakers held their first hearing on basic education funding formula in the Valley

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — A school funding expert testified to a bipartisan legislative committee Tuesday that the gap between the wealthiest and poorest school districts in Pennsylvania has grown to $6.2 billion dollars.

The Basic Education Funding Commission heard testimony in Allentown from experts, school superintendents and education advocates in the first in a series of hearings across the state. Lawmakers are under pressure to find a legislative fix after Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled in February the state was unconstitutionally underfunding poorer school districts.

Penn State University Assistant Professor Matthew Kelly said while he testified during the trial that the shortfall between the wealthier and poorer districts was $4.2 billion, his updated analysis based on 2021-2022 data shows it’s now widened an additional $2 billion from earlier estimates. Kelly said there are currently 412 school districts that are not adequately funded, and that they educate 83% of students in the commonwealth.

“The research is crystal clear that when funding is increased and these gaps are addressed, it will improve both these short and long-term outcomes for students and some of these studies have even looked in adulthood,” Kelly said.

Kelly said the poorest districts have the least capacity to generate revenue to cover costs without additional help from the state. And students of color are disproportionately impacted. In 2022-23, 43% of all Black and Latino Pennsylvanians were in schools in the poorest 20% of the population, compared to only 13% in the wealthiest 20%, he said.

Some Republican members of the committee expressed skepticism that more money would result in improved academic performance, with some saying past investments have not resulted in improved academic outcomes.

"If we were to follow your recommendation for an additional $6 [b]illion, which would be by far the largest tax increase in the history of Pennsylvania," said Senate Education Committee Chairman Dave Argall. "How could you guarantee us that this time we'll see the results that we would all desire."

“The research is crystal clear that when funding is increased in these gaps are addressed, it will improve both these long short-term outcomes for students."
Penn State University Assistant Professor Matthew Kelly

According to Kelly, Allentown is underfunded by more than $203 million. Bethlehem was underfunded by $63.6 million. Salisbury School District is not underfunded, according to the analysis. Salisbury schools Superintendent Lynn Fuini-Hetten also testified at the hearing.

Allentown schools Superintendent Carol Birks said the deck has been stacked against the district for decades.

“Among the most pressing is that our schools contain outdated mechanical, electrical, plumbing and fire protection systems, as well as nonexistent air conditioning in many of our oldest schools," she said. "In total, these concerns collectively contribute to more than 70% of the estimated investment costs required to address these deficiencies."

Bethlehem Area School District Superintendent Jack Silva said the district is also having to maintain older buildings, like Liberty High School, which was closed Tuesday because of an electrical issue. He advocated for more state funding for school construction.

Commission Co-Chair Sen. Kristin Phillips-Hall questioned if there was something that needed to be changed about the taxation system since Allentown was the second-highest funded system in the state.

“I think the point that I was trying to make was I think the state has made a considerable investment in the Allentown public schools,” Phillips-Hall said after the hearing. “We’ve seen record amounts of funding go into basic education funding and yet the district continues to say that it’s not enough."

Birks said during her testimony that while the district needed more money from the state, she is committed to aligning resources to stretch dollars while trying not to overburden local taxpayers.

State House Education Committee Chairman Rep. Peter Schweyer, D-Lehigh, pointed to Parkland School District’s wealthier tax base, which includes warehouses and Dorney Park. He said the district is also the fourth-largest district statewide.

“There’s absolutely no surprise that we got a larger share in terms of proportion,” Schweyer said after the meeting. “We’re still underfunded by about 40%.”

Silva also said he would like the state to resume reimbursing charter school tuition expenses, which he said right now cost Bethlehem schools about $38 million. He also supports reimbursing charter schools for their actual special education expenses.

Two panelists also spoke about student health as it relates to funding. Julie Cousler, executive director of the Pennsylvania School-Based Health Alliance, discussed school-based health centers, which she described as like having an urgent care center in a school. There are 30 schools with health centers currently, with Allentown having two, in Sheridan and Anna Mae Hays elementary schools.

Marilyn Howarth, deputy director of the Philadelphia Regional Center for Children’s Environmental Health, warned about toxins in schools, including lead paint, asbestos, lead in drinking water and poor air quality.