Corbett neglecting Pennsylvania’s vulnerable school children

    The evidence is in, and the verdict is clear. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is guilty of gross neglect of its most fundamental duty: educating all children to prepare them for citizenship and our 21st Century economy.

    The plain and simple truth is the commonwealth is violating its own constitution, which requires the state to support “a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

    The Philadelphia school budget crisis is the latest example of the state’s failure. Pennsylvania continues to fund public education as it has for decades. The Legislature and governor decide how much they want to spend based entirely on politics, with no regard for what students need to achieve state academic standards.

    This neglect is taking a heartbreaking toll on Philadelphia school children and on children across the state.

    In 2011, Gov. Tom Corbett cut $1 billion in state school aid. The cut fell hardest on Philadelphia and other districts with high enrollments of poor children, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

    Rural and urban districts across the state are now struggling to offer core courses, maintain essential staff, keep class sizes reasonable, and make sure kids are safe.

    The state aid cut has devastated Philadelphia. Tens of neighborhood schools closed. Class sizes of 30 or more. No art, music and physical education. Librarians and support staff gone. A handful of high school guidance counselors left with astronomical case loads. Children are now in harm’s way from the loss of school nurses, social workers and security personnel.

    The Governor’s aid cut has transformed Philadelphia into an education wasteland, consigning students to schools without the most basic resources.

    Make no mistake: The severe staff and programs cuts have nothing to do with how teachers obtain tenure, or how they are laid off, or other so-called “reforms.” The deprivation of resources in Philadelphia and other districts is the direct result of the governor’s decision to disinvest in the education of the state’s most vulnerable children.

    To make matters worse, Gov. Corbett also scrapped the funding formula enacted by the Legislature in 2007. For the first time, the state put in place a mechanism to fund education based on the actual cost of giving all children the opportunity to achieve the state’s learning standards. The formula also included the cost of full-day kindergarten, high-quality preschool and other essential programs for at-risk children in high-poverty schools.

    The formula required a five-year phase-in of $4 billion in state aid, targeted to the state’s neediest communities. The state honored this commitment for two years. But the governor’s massive aid cut in 2011 shattered that progress.

    The governor’s decision to abandon the formula deprived Philadelphia students of $351 million, enough to fill the district’s current budget hole. Reading lost $60 million for its students, Erie $20 million, Allentown $34 million.

    Pennsylvania once again has no rational, cost-driven method to fund public education.

    This crisis has only one solution. The state must reinstate the funding formula, and restart the phase-in of the additional state aid necessary to give all children the chance to succeed.

    The Pennsylvania Constitution demands every child be given the opportunity to meet his or her promise. It’s time for the commonwealth to meet that demand.

    David G. Sciarra is the executive director of Education Law Center.

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