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OP-ED: We can't address racial injustice in Pa. without fixing school funding system

Rep. Matt Bradford, Rep. Jordan Harris, and Rep. Frank Dermody
Pennsylvania House of Representatives
LOGO - education

For the last three weeks, many in our country have had their consciousness awakened to long-standing fundamental inequities disproportionately impacting communities and people of color. In the wake of the tragic murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others, and in the midst of a global pandemic, we have all been called to acknowledge and confront systemic racism.

In Pennsylvania, the Legislative Black Caucus courageously advanced the policy conversation by demanding votes on languished police reforms, but the conversation cannot end there. We must have an open and honest conversation to address the racial and socioeconomic inequities and injustices in our public school system.

It has been over 66 years since the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional, based upon the belief that separate schools provided for unequal access to education and opportunity.

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Despite this ruling, racial and economic segregation persist in public education throughout the nation. Pennsylvania is no exception. The commonwealth ranks 44th in the nation in terms of its investment in education, paying only 38% of the cost of education on average. The responsibility to fund education is left to local communities that have vastly different abilities to raise necessary dollars.

Consider these examples of local taxing capacity per weighted student — an element of the Fair Funding Formula — of neighboring school districts. If taxing at the same rate, Lower Merion School District would raise $32,441 per student, while Philadelphia School District and Norristown Area School District would only raise $3,685 and $7,505, respectively. In Lehigh County, Parkland School District would receive $13,260 per student at the same time that Allentown City School District would only generate $2,626. Across the state in Allegheny County, Montour School District would generate $14,805 per student while Sto-Rox School District only could expect $2,671.

White student enrollment constitutes 14% of Philadelphia School District, 15% of Norristown Area School District, 9% of Allentown City SD, and 28% of Sto-Rox School District. On the other hand, white student enrollment hits 70% in Lower Merion School District, 64% in Parkland School District, and 85% in Montour School District. The state and federal funding added to the mix in these poorer, more racially diverse districts does little to level the playing field. In aggregate, Pennsylvania’s wealthiest 100 school districts spend $5,284, or 48%, more per weighted student than the least advantaged 100 school districts.

Starting with less — less education, less access, less income, less opportunity — makes the future that much harder. The pandemic has painted it in stark contrast. Some students were almost immediately connected to their teachers through technology, while others were working with photocopied worksheets.

Money matters in education. When we address the systemic racial and socioeconomic inequities of our funding mechanisms, we will make real progress toward closing the achievement gap, where on average, white students score nearly two grade levels higher than black students. Along the way, we need to diversify Pennsylvania’s 96% white educator workforce — the least diverse in the country.  

We can combat these inequities and improve upon our near last ranking by increasing the state’s investments in education — something we failed to do in the recently passed stop-gap budget. The Fair Funding Formula is the right vehicle, but it is only as good as the amount of funding running through it — currently just 11.2%. That is like having a membership to a state-of-the-art gym and going twice a year.

The culprit preventing every school district from receiving its fair share is a policy commonly called hold-harmless, which is really a misnomer. For many communities of color, the effect is "hold-harmed." This policy guarantees a base amount for each school district, baking in the inequitable distributions of the past. If "hold-harmed" was eliminated, Norristown would receive an additional $16 million, Philadelphia — an additional $402 million, Allentown — an additional $87 million, and Sto-Rox — an additional $3 million.

What makes all of this even worse is that the stop-gap budget set up a dangerous precedent of another year of "hold-harmed" further exacerbating this longstanding unfair funding structure.

It is time to address these inequities once and for all. The Pennsylvania Legislature must start by getting to work to pass a full budget that prioritizes a quality education for all children, regardless of their race or zip code. The only way forward is to put the politics and the partisanship aside and work together to create a better Pennsylvania for everyone. 

— Rep. Matt Bradford is a Democrat representing the 70th Legislative District; Rep. Jordan Harris is a Democrat representing the 186th Legislative District, and Rep. Frank Dermody is a Democrat representing the 33rd Legislative District.