This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
"Stark" and "alarming" are words that were used Friday to describe the results of a recently published analysis of state education aid. It shows that Pennsylvania districts with similar rates of poverty that are almost all White get higher per-pupil amounts of basic education funding than districts that are more racially diverse.
"I think that it’s stark, breathtaking when you look at it," said Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, a statewide advocacy organization. "We think we know these things. But it’s one thing to talk about it in generalities, it is another to see it so vividly."
State education aid in Pennsylvania is correlated with the poverty level of each district’s student population. But the new analysis shows that the funding levels are also skewed, depending on the racial composition of each district’s student population. Districts with a higher-than-average percentage of students of color fare worse when state aid is doled out.
Data analyst David Mosenkis, who is a lay leader with the faith-based community organizing group POWER, compiled the data about current state funding levels for every school district in the state and then published this statistical analysis.
It is similar to one that was the basis of two lawsuits in the 1990s alleging racial discrimination in Pennsylvania’s school funding system. The state lawsuit was dismissed and the federal one was dropped under pressure from state leaders.
But the funding situation has changed little since then; if anything, the trend has gotten worse, according to attorneys who were involved in those lawsuits.
"It should be a call to action for policy makers and for people who care about civil rights and basic fairness," Gobreski said.
Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite said he found the numbers "alarming."
"This diagram suggests that children who are most in need of resources are receiving the fewest amount of resources," he said. "This is why it’s so critically important for us to have a full, fair, and equitable funding formula."
On Monday, a group of school districts, parents, and organizations plan to announce legal action against state officials for "failing to uphold their constitutional responsibility to provide a system of public education." They will be represented by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), which was involved in the 1990s suits.
The state constitution requires that every child be provided with a "thorough and efficient" education. It is unclear whether the racial disparities argument will be part of that lawsuit.
"This is not just a Philadelphia problem, this is a commonwealth problem," said Hite. "This [analysis] suggests that ‘thorough and efficient’ depends on where you live."
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s education chief, said in a statement that Mosenkis’ findings "are very concerning and highlight biases and trends that should disturb anyone who believes in our system of public education." She said that it draws attention to the need for more funding, as well as a funding formula that is predictable and weighted based on students’ "extraordinary and differentiated learning needs."
She said that all students should be treated equally, with factors such as "poverty, concentrated poverty, limited English proficiency, and other special needs … weighted in such a way that all students with these needs receive the same amount of support."
The Basic Education Funding Commission, a legislative body charged with coming up with a new school funding formula, is meeting in Philadelphia on Nov. 18 and 19. The list of people who will be testifying at its hearing has not yet been finalized.
State Sen. Anthony Williams (D-Philadelphia) said that the commission, if it hasn’t already, must take into consideration any "history and pattern in Pennsylvania that discriminates against a particular ethnic group."
He also urged pursuit of another federal anti-discrimination lawsuit. The lawsuit being announced Monday is in state courts.
"That kind of lawsuit should be revived," Williams said. Even though the state took over the Philadelphia school district in 2001 because of fiscal instability, it has not fixed the problem, he said.
The pattern of discriminatory funding "apparently persists, based on the data," he said.
For instance, the pattern of districts with more students of color getting less aid persists at every income level, according to Mosenkis’ study.
Williams said that he heard the funding commission has been considering ideas that included "incentivizing" districts by giving them more money for improved performance. That approach, he said, would just exacerbate the problem.
"Families in better economic circumstances tend to be higher-performing," he said. "That would take us in the opposite direction."
Williams and others agree that the legislature did not deliberately set out to create a funding system that was biased based on race. His take on why it has turned out that way: "Politics has trumped a rational, objective funding system."
Feather Houstoun, a member of the School Reform Commission that governs the district, attributed the pattern to "the cumulative impact of sequential, unrelated decisions." She said she hopes the Basic Education Funding Commission "produces a report that is very transparent about any disparate impact on low-wealth and high-minority districts."
Donna Cooper, head of the advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth and a former policy aide to Ed Rendell when he was governor, said that Mosenkis’ study "raises extremely serious questions around equity and the extent to which the state is meeting its constitutional obligation for every child to [receive] a thorough and efficient education." She also said it "raises in deep ways civil rights issues that may have implications for federal law."
She said that it was known before that the funding system had this impact, "but this study makes it concrete and offers a measurable argument, which has serious implications. … It’s impossible to envision a future with a robust economy when minority children are concentrated in districts that are underfunded."