This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Last Monday, the National Constitution Center hosted a panel where four people actively involved in education policy discussed the role of the Pennsylvania constitution in improving access to quality public education. The discussion was framed around the contentious policy of “school choice,” which advocates the expansion of charters and magnet schools.
The panel members debated how to interpret the constitution’s mandate that the state provide “thorough and efficient education” for all of its students.
Mark Gleason, of the Philadelphia School Partnership, said, “What’s especially significant about that phrase is the word that’s not there. It ends with ‘education,’ it doesn’t end with ‘education system.’” Gleason concluded that the state may be obliged to provide public education under the constitution, but that “it doesn’t mean the same way, through the same system.”
However, Deborah Gordon Klehr of the Education Law Center was quick to contradict him. She read directly from the constitution:
“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.”
Klehr explained that the constitution explicitly uses the term and that the state legislature is responsible for creating and maintaining that system.
Donna Cooper, of Public Citizens for Children &nd Youth, said she wished that “choice were a strategy for success.” But, she said, neither magnet schools nor charters help students who do not have access to them.
“You have to do it universally or you don’t move the needle,” she said.
As evidence of Pennsylvania’s lack of a “thorough” education system, Klehr pointed out that the commonwealth has “the largest gap between the wealthiest and poorest districts” of any state in the country.
Gleason claimed that Pennsylvania has, nonetheless, made progress over the last 10 or 15 years by providing some choice in low-income communities.
“We have school choice. The problem is we don’t have access to equal choice. … Families who can afford it – who live in the right zip code – have a choice.”
But Cooper argued that the expansion of magnets and charters exacerbate what is an inherently unequal system. “We can create pockets of success … but that is not a universal answer. Creating more choice comes at the expense of students who don’t have it.”
Gleason acknowledged that school choice causes stress on the larger system. But he said that if the state had a fair education funding formula, that stress would be diminished. He outlined a proposal where a weighted student formula would allot an amount to follow each child, regardless of what kind of school they attend.
Klehr pointed out that the state already commissioned a “costing out” study in 2007 to determine how much each district would need to bring all its students to academic proficiency. The formula assigned different weights, and per-pupil amounts, for factors including deep poverty and the need to learn English, and additional money to districts with high concentrations of these students.
Former Gov. Ed Rendell started using the formula in his education allocations with the goal of increasing the state’s share of total education spending to at least 50 percent. But that was abandoned by former Gov. Tom Corbett, who slashed state school aid.
“So we’ve measured it,” Klehr said, “we just abandoned it in 2011, and we’re hopeful that our General Assembly will bring that back for our students and for our schools.”
A legislative school funding commission followed a similar template in coming up with a fair funding formula in 2015. But with the state budget stalemate, there is still no agreement on how the money should be distributed, much less on the total amount that should be spent.
Cooper blamed the state legislature, which, she said, “since 2011 has been unwilling to think about the words ‘thorough and efficient.’”
“A big piece of the solution lies with the courts,” said Klehr. “The Supreme Court has a responsibility.”
But not every failure of the system could be attributed to the interpretation of constitutional language. All the panel members agreed that Massachusetts, with a relatively similar constitution, is largely recognized as the state with the best public education system.
Cooper said that Massachusetts was not an anomaly, and many “others are doing better than us with very similarly worded constitutions.”
The fourth panelist was Ina Lipman, the executive director the Children’s Scholarship Fund, which awards tuition grants to low-income students to attend private schools. The money comes from two tax-credit programs for businesses, which get tax write-offs when they contribute to these funds.
Lipman said she thought school choice would improve if some of the state’s very small districts consolidated.
After the discussion, moderator Kristen Graham, the Inquirer’s Philadelphia schools beat reporter, interviewed Superintendent William Hite. She began by asking whether he believed that Philadelphia students were receiving a fair and equal education.
Hite responded with one word: “No.” He chuckled, and the auditorium erupted with laughter.
But the level of inequity is no laughing matter. Hite went on to talk about what the Philadelphia School District lacks due to insufficient resources.
Among other things, he said, he would use additional funds to “double down” on early childhood education including universal pre-K. He also reiterated that he hopes to get a new contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers this year.
Watch the panel discussion and Superintendent William Hite’s keynote speech below.
Greg Windle is an intern at the Notebook.