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Is the pressure for educational equity still on?

Court monitoring suspended; momentum for equity rests with District and community

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Improving public schools is the “civil rights issue of the 21st century,” CEO Paul Vallas stated soon after arriving in Philadelphia. Many Philadelphians agree, pointing to the contrast between conditions in the city’s schools, where students of color are a majority, and conditions in the mostly White suburbs.

But there is another civil rights issue – within the city’s schools. In a decision that made headlines when it was released in 1994, Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner found that the School District itself was “a racially segregated school environment where all of the students do not receive equal educational opportunities.”

The victims, Judge Smith-Ribner wrote, were Black and Latino students, especially those in schools that serve mostly students of color. These children, she found, did not have “equal access to … the best qualified and most experienced teachers, equal physical facilities and plants, equal access to advanced or special admissions academic course offerings, equal allocation of resources, or a commitment to eliminating racial imbalances in the schools to the extent feasible.”

Through much of the past decade, the judge was a key player in the Philadelphia public school system who used her powers to press the District on issues of racial equity. But with the desegregation case now winding to a close, what other forces for equity in the District or in the community will ensure that efforts to provide equal educational opportunity continue?

The court’s impact

In 1994, Judge Smith-Ribner moved swiftly to put together a reform plan. A new Superintendent, David Hornbeck, announced that he welcomed the court’s oversight. For several years, the District made frequent visits to court to report on steps being taken to address racial gaps.

Michael Churchill, chief counsel of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, who represented community groups in the case, noted, “The court caused the District to make sure racially isolated schools would not be last in getting full-day kindergartens, computer technology, and other resources. Some important inequalities were reduced under court oversight.”

But the pressure created by the court decision did not last. When the judge took the unusual step of ordering the state to pay for improvements in the District’s predominantly nonwhite schools, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court quickly overturned her order.

Without more state money, the District maintained, it could not reduce class size, increase teacher training and undertake other costly steps necessary to fully close the gaps that Judge Smith-Ribner had identified. The resources necessary for both equality and quality were missing, and reform began to stall.

In 2000, Hornbeck resigned, and 18 tumultuous months later, the state took over the District. A School Reform Commission was created and CEO Paul Vallas arrived, with new school improvement agendas. Judge Smith-Ribner’s orders were no longer front and center, and the District sought to end the case.

In a compromise reached last year, the parties agreed that the case would stay open for three years. During this time, the District will report once a year on its activities, focusing on whether it is closing the racial achievement gap and on whether it is distributing resources fairly, but there will be no court action. (Most of the data in this edition are from the District’s first report.) Unless a party convinces the court to reopen it, the case will end in 2007.

With the court monitoring of the District suspended, those concerned about racial equality are looking for other ways to hold the system accountable. A separate, federal case alleging discriminatory spending by the state is still pending, but it too is in suspension as the parties re-examine the most recent statewide spending patterns.

District’s equity agenda

The School District’s “Declaration of Education,” adopted by the School Reform Commission in 2004, lays out a set of clear equity goals for the system, and CEO Vallas stated that the District’s budgets and program evaluations are now all aligned with those goals.

The Declaration’s “target goals” for equity include:

  • “Disparity based on race, ethnicity, gender and socioeconomic status will be less than 10 percentage points on all academic measures.”
  • “100% of schools will have equity in facilities, programs and resources.”
  • “100% of District teachers and paraprofessionals will be highly qualified for their positions.”

The District has an Office of Accountability to monitor whether it is meeting its goals. The Office of Educational Equity, which is supposed to ensure that the District responds to equity issues, currently has a staff of only two.

Vallas’s focus has been on systemwide improvement, trying to avoid what he described as “a dynamic that has communities with relatively poor and underfunded schools fighting each other, when the problem lies in the larger issue of the inadequacies of school funding formulas.”

Vallas explained, “I proceed from the premise that all of our schools have deficiencies – all of our schools have been found lacking when it comes to physical conditions of the buildings, staffing, investment in curriculum, instruction and professional development, and extracurricular activities.”

On two big equity issues facing the District – how to rectify the huge racial imbalance in the distribution of qualified teachers, and where to place the $1.5 billion of new schools on the drawing boards in order to address racial disparities and diminish segregation – it is not clear what pressure there is for equity from within the District.

Outside advocacy groups

The shortage of high-quality teachers in high-poverty, predominantly nonwhite schools is among the equity issues about which there has been high-profile advocacy by community organizations in recent years. Another is the District’s shifting of some of its Title I funding from high-poverty to lower-poverty schools.

Carol Hemingway, board president of Philadelphia ACORN, identified teacher quality as a key equity issue among parents of students in low-income and predominantly nonwhite schools. ACORN recently initiated an effort to develop a Philadelphia-based “Grow-Your-Own” campaign to help school-based non-teaching personnel such as NTAs and paraprofessionals to become teachers.

A citywide Teacher Equity Campaign has pressed the District to provide stronger incentives for teachers to take jobs in high-poverty schools.

Some pressure may come from the No Child Left Behind Act, which mandates higher teacher quality, progress reporting for each racial and ethnic group, and increased support for parental involvement. Says Hemingway, “There are so many things wrong with NCLB, but one good thing that most people are not grasping is its parent involvement piece. Districts can’t dismiss parent involvement any more…[they] have to do it.”

But, unlike the reports required under Judge Smith-Ribner’s settlement, the law doesn’t require any reporting on racial disparities in the distribution of teachers or financial resources, or on whether facilities and course offerings are of equal quality in schools serving large numbers of students of color.

According to Churchill, the overarching problem is the underfunding of the entire District compared to the predominantly White suburban districts. Crucial gaps in achievement within the District cannot be fixed, he observed, because it will take so much money to reduce class size, to hire and retain comparably qualified teachers with the suburban districts, and to provide sufficient tutoring, guidance, and supports for students.

Churchill argued that public opinion in the last governor’s race was strongly in favor of more equal funding, but the Pennsylvania legislature blocked any real redistribution, and Pennsylvania remains one of the worst states in the country for school funding equity. “Until students, parents, grandparents, employers, and taxpayers who will bear the cost of this racially polarized and failing education system really threaten legislators with consequences, it does not look like change will occur,” he said.

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