Students, families, and education advocates join Children First and Education Voters of Pennsylvania to host a rally on the Capitol steps, Nov. 12, 2021, the first day of the landmark trial that changed how Pennsylvania funds its 500 school districts (Capital-Star photo).
By Gwen Shapiro
In the Philadelphia School District, lead and asbestos contaminate school buildings. Many high schools don’t teach precalculus. Once, a teacher confiscating a student’s iPod escalated into the student breaking the teacher’s vertebrae.
Right across City Avenue, the Lower Merion School District has classes in astronomy at its high school. Its middle school has five 3D printers. Student violence towards teachers is unheard of. How did we get to this inequity?
This is the reality of racial injustice in Pennsylvania’s public schools. A study was commissioned by the general assembly in 2005 to find out how much money every school district needed to adequately educate their students compared to the money that they actually had.
The study found that the progressive distribution of state aid was effectively drowned out by local wealth disparities. Wealthier districts generated more local revenue than poorer districts, despite the wealthiest districts having the lowest tax effort and the poorest districts having the highest.
The study found that the majority white Lower Merion spent $17,184 per student, despite only needing $12,211 per student to be considered adequately funded. Philadelphia only spent $9,947 per student, despite needing $14,141 to provide their majority-minority student body with an adequate education.
Last month, the Commonwealth Court ruled that Pennsylvania’s current school funding system violates the state constitution.
This is a victory for the school funding fight. But advocates avoid one question: Is any local school funding justified?
As a white student in the Lower Merion schools, I get an education of vast abundance every day, but across the street from me, students have to suffer the indignity of being shown that they are not seen as worthy of such basic needs as paper, a safe building, and violence intervention resources.
A system that includes local school funding disproportionately burdens less white districts. 50% of Black students and 40% of Hispanic students in Pennsylvania attend schools in the bottom 20% of local wealth.
Because whiter districts are less reliant on state funding, when state funding is inadequate, less white districts are hurt worse. In 2011, state funding cuts disproportionately harmed nonwhite students; the Public Interest Law Center found that “caucasian students lost on average only $366 per student, while non-white students lost on average $728 per student.”
The Blackest school districts are short $2,347 per student, vs just $762 short per student in the whitest. Underfunding limits a district’s resources to address their problems, leading to learning environments that are dangerous, like schools with asbestos.
Funding injustice exacerbates racial opportunity gaps. Pennsylvania has the largest racial opportunity gap in the country: an opportunity score of 70.0% for white students but 56.7% nonwhite students.
Many majority-minority school districts don’t have adequate resources to attempt to remedy these problems. Funding inequity also denies nonwhite students opportunity by decreasing nonwhite educators, who increase opportunity for nonwhite students. Philadelphia has 2.32 times the rate of nonwhite students as it has nonwhite teachers, and the disparity is growing.
According to one policy brief, a driver of Black teacher attrition is inequitable resource distribution. This is not what educational justice looks like.
Some say if state funding was enough to provide all students with a basic level of education, school districts should still be allowed to supplement their state funding with property taxes.
However, local taxes will always give whiter districts an unjust advantage because they will get more revenue per student with the same tax rate than less white districts due to a higher property tax base.
The Lower Merion School District had $4,972 more than they needed to adequately educate their students in 2006; even if the state provided enough funding to bring every district to funding adequacy, as is being proposed by advocates, Lower Merion would still have thousands of dollars per student more than other school districts after adjusting for student needs if school property taxes are allowed to continue.
Simply increasing state funding without prohibiting property taxes would still leave our school funding system with vast racial inequities that we cannot just accept as inevitable.
The school funding system could improve if state funding increases after the recent school funding lawsuit verdict. However, racial inequity is inevitable in a system allowing for any local school funding.
As the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center puts it, “we simply do not understand how anyone with good will and a good heart cannot … embrace some plan to radically reform a system … that is clearly a product of racism and white supremacy.”
Just look at the school that I go to with its marble staircases and oceanography classes in contrast with the district across the street where schools close when it gets too hot because they are not air conditioned.
Advocates must fight for a system that prohibits local school funding. People in every district, especially the wealthiest, need to speak up by contacting their legislators to say that any local revenue allowed in the school funding system is a racial injustice. We must pressure our elected officials to fight for funding that is grounded in equity.
Gwen Shapiro is a 10th grade student at Lower Merion High School who is passionate about equity in education. Born in Philadelphia, she has been living in Lower Merion for eight years.
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