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Allentown, Bethlehem Area school districts demand fair funding from Pa.

Carol Birks fair funding press conference
Sarah Mueller
Allentown School District Superintendent Carol Birks speaks during a news conference on the state's funding of public schools on Tuesday, March 28, 2023.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. — Representatives from the Allentown and Bethlehem Area school districts gathered with community members Tuesday to demand more money from state lawmakers for poor students and school systems.

It was billed as a simultaneous statewide news conference with the Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools and officials from East Allegheny School District, Johnstown Area School District, the School District of Lancaster and Upper Darby School District.

  • Poor urban school districts are pressing the state to live up to its duty to fund all districts equitably
  • A Commonwealth Court ruling said state lawmakers were underfunding poor school districts
  • Advocates and educators say legislators and the governor could be doing more to help students

Bethlehem schools superintendent Joe Roy said the districts participating Tuesday educate a majority of students of color. He said state lawmakers must give poorer districts more basic education funding.

And he called on legislators to reform how they fund cyber charter schools, charter schools and special education in Pennsylvania.

A recent Commonwealth Court ruling found the state's basic education funding system is unconstitutional. A judge ruled the state underfunds poorer school districts and she ordered the governor and the general assembly to find a solution.

'Adults sometimes seem to forget'

Freedom High School freshman Sean Vennemann said his education in Bethlehem Area public schools is tied directly to his success as an adult. He said he’s pleading with Gov. Josh Shapiro to add more money to the budget for school districts.

“Adults sometimes seem to forget or ignore the fact that the amount of funding my school gets has a tremendous impact on the quality of my generation’s education and our future success,” Vennemann said during the news conference at Northeast Middle School.

“If the state wants to prioritize the success of the next generation, the most impactful way to go about this is to make sure the schools have the money they're owed.”

Shapiro took office in January and has proposed spending about $1 billion in education this fiscal year — $567 million in basic education funding. That’s much less than what many education advocates had wanted. There is no new Level Up funding — a supplement that has gone mostly to urban schools — in his budget proposal.

By the numbers

Under Shapiro’s plan, Bethlehem would get $5.4 million more in basic education dollars, a rise of 11.6%. It would see an increase of $874,200 for special education, a bump of 9.5%. Allentown would net nearly $14 million more in basic education money, or an 8.1% boost. It would receive almost $2.2 million for special education students, a 14.7% rise.

“The current governor’s budget proposal is good, but not good enough,” Roy said. “If we’re not going to increase the BEF separately, we need to continue the Level Up funding.”

Allentown School District Superintendent Carol Birks said one in seven of Pennsylvania K-12 public school children attends an urban schools. She noted sharp differences in the state between the haves and the have-nots, which she said is why school districts must be funded equitably.

“Adults sometimes seem to forget or ignore the fact that the amount of funding my school gets has a tremendous impact on the quality of my generation’s education and our future success."
Freedom High School Freshman Sean Vennemann

“As a state, our future prosperity depends on us successfully preparing our students — who are talented, who are creative, who are gifted,” she said. “It is our responsibility to ensure that they are prepared for college, career and life beyond high school."

Call to action — now

State budget chiefs may decide to chip away at achieving a solution to the legal ruling, but Birks says kids can’t wait that long.

“Yes, we are happy that the court ruled that what was happening was inequitable,” she said. “But we hope that that’s enacted and it doesn’t take another seven or eight years of appeals. I’m probably not going to be so popular for saying this — but another eight, nine, 10 years before we see the money in the classroom: We need those dollars in the classroom now.”

Judging by the governor’s budget proposal to address low-wealth districts’ inadequate funding, Bethlehem Area School Board member Karen Beck Pooley said: “This year’s kindergarteners will be high schoolers by the time we’re done and that’s unacceptable.”

Charles Linderman, interim business manager for Allentown schools, said the district’s charter school costs have gone up more than $50 million over the past 10 years. The state used to reimburse school districts for charter school funding, returning about 30 cents on the dollar. The state would also previously reimburse school districts for capital projects, depending on the wealth of the district. Both Allentown and Bethlehem have building construction projects underway.

Shapiro's budget proposal does aadd $100 million in matching grants to school districts that are making repairs to school buildings.

Bethlehem NAACP President Esther Lee said lawmakers must step up or be prepared to be voted out.

“Our people in Harrisburg need to get with it,” she said. “We need to put those guys and gals to work.”