Back to school.
It’s that time of year when we are getting ready to send our kids back into the classroom. COVID-19 changed the way that looked last year and possibly will again this year, but nevertheless, school will begin.
There is always a mix of emotions for students heading back to school -- excitement, anxiety, anticipation – and a lot of preparation getting backpacks stocked, paperwork completed, bus routes planned.
So many variables and what ifs are swirling around this year, but while COVID may change what Day 1 looks like for lots of kids, some issues remain the same. Many school buildings are toxic and many districts lack funding for appropriate materials and resources.
That means students will be returning to classrooms that, depending on the district, may pose many health hazards, including lead in the drinking water, asbestos in cracked floor tiles, mold outbreaks in classrooms, broken boilers in the winter and no air conditioning in the warmer months. Pennsylvania has some of the oldest school buildings in the nation. Most were constructed between 1950 and 1959, with more than 200 buildings built prior to 1950.
Many of the schools sit in districts that are underfunded and are not equipped with the latest technology or most recent resources, and often lack basic items like new chairs and desks, and gym equipment.
This year, House Democrats pushed for more funding for these districts. And while we were able to secure a $300 million increase in school funding, our Republican counterparts decided the bulk of the $10 billion -- $7 billion in American Recovery Plan money from the federal government and $3 billion from our state’s revenue surplus -- would be best set aside for a rainy day. The problem is, it has been “raining” in some of our school districts for years and the time is now to make the necessary changes so our children are in buildings that not only provide a quality education, but also do not make them sick. The extra influx of money would have made a significant difference in what education looks like in Pennsylvania. It would have leveled the playing field for all our students, regardless of where they live. A child’s ZIP code shouldn’t determine the quality of their K-12 education.
We would have liked to see at least $1.3 billion – only half of our state revenue $3 billion surplus – be a viable investment in education through a fair funding formula. The sad truth is that the school districts with the highest shares of students of color are hurt the most by the state’s unfair and inadequate education funding system.
Teachers could have been paid through substantial investment that, at this time, would have been possible. Teachers deserve fair pay, adequate classroom resources and to teach in a healthy environment, not a toxic school.
Struggling communities could build around a strengthened public school. More state funding helps overburdened local taxpayers. Economic development and revitalization is stymied in many Pennsylvania school districts by disproportionately high and crippling property taxes that still cannot provide an education comparable to other districts.
It is sad that we finally have the funding to address gross inequities that have persisted for decades and use pandemic recovery dollars as intended. But the majority party legislature failed to deliver it.
Our school buildings were hazardous long before the pandemic hit and our school funding has been woefully lacking for years. Our kids deserve a safe place to learn, with appropriate resources and materials and in buildings eradicated of lead paint, lead pipes and poisonous mold, all without raising taxes.