A play and pleas for Pa. school funding formula

The debate over how to fund Pennsylvania’s schools is heating up as the governor and lawmakers face a June 30 budget deadline. The advocacy organization Public Citizens for Children & Youth held press conferences demanding a fair school funding formula today at various spots around southeast Pennsylvania.

On the steps of the Montgomery County Courthouse, Norristown superintendent Janet Samuels said Pennsylvania is one of only three states in the country without an education funding formula. She says the Keystone State also has one of the widest gaps between wealthy and poor school districts.

“A funding formula must be put in place that considers factors such poverty, English language proficiency, homelessness, and foster care placement — items that greatly affect each district’s’ budget,” she said.

Samuels says fewer federal and state dollars have placed an unfair burden on her school district’s local tax base, which makes up 73 percent of the district’s revenue.

She says the lack of a fair funding formula in Pennsylvania has hurt.

“It has been necessary for our district to revisit staffing, modify programs, seek a multitude of grants and levy tax increases,” she said.

She says one factor that contributes is that Norristown has 559 tax-exempt properties. As the county seat it’s home to many federal, state and county agencies and offices, which are all exempt from paying school taxes. Samuels says if these properties were taxed, the school district would see an additional $19 million a year.

Around a dozen education advocates held up signs in support of fair funding, while local actors performed a selection from “School Play.” The documentary-style play is about the school funding crisis and was created from hundreds interviews with parents, teachers, school administrators and students.

“We hope this collection of interwoven interviews…provides a broader and more human understanding of how schools and communities have struggled in recent years to provide students with the resources they need for academic success,” said Roxy Barnebey, PCCY’s associate director for education.

Actor Christen Mandracchia recently graduated from Villanova’s masters program in theater.

“As theater practitioners — especially me who plans to go into education — this is an issue that affects us directly,” she said. “Because when programs get cut, of course the first ones to go are the arts programs, which means that we either work for free or have to pay for our own supplies.”

Julia Salvo, another recent graduate from Villanova’s theater program, says the trio of actors participated because the play’s producer, Lauren Fanslau, asked them to, but also because the topic is meaningful.

“I think school reform is something that we’re all encouraged to participate in. We think it’s very important for the state of Pennsylvania. We’re more than willing to devote our time to this.”

The Basic Education Funding Commission was scheduled to release its recommendation to the Pennsylvania legislature yesterday, but asked for a one-week extension until Wednesday, June 17.

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