This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Pennsylvania is having it both ways when it comes to creating and tolerating educational inequity. And neither way is good.
Not only are its schools among the most segregated in the nation, but its funding disparities between wealthy and poor districts are also among the widest. Some highly segregated states, like New Jersey, make an effort to direct more funds to its poorest districts. But not Pennsylvania. The state neither does anything to mitigate intense segregation by race and income, nor does it try to compensate by making sure that districts with high concentrations of poverty and students of color have sufficient funds to educate them adequately.
Data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection now has provided more detail about just how wide the gaps are in educational opportunity between privileged, mostly White, students and low-income students of color in Pennsylvania. Research for Action has analyzed the data and found that on all 17 opportunity indicators, Black and Latino students in Pennsylvania fare worse than those who are White. What’s more, the report says, "on most measures the degree of disparity between racial groups is larger in Pennsylvania than in other states in our region and nationally." The data are from the 2013-14 school year.
The report also found that White students in the state receive better opportunities than their White counterparts in the region and nation, while Black and Latino students "receive on average worse opportunities than their counterparts in the region and the nation."
"While Pennsylvania appears to provide high levels of access to rigorous coursework, school counselors, and experienced educators compared to the nation, White students are disproportionately the beneficiaries of that access," the report concludes.
The indicators include academic ones such as access to and enrollment in Advanced Placement courses, access to and enrollment in gifted and talented programs, and access to and enrollment in calculus, physics, and chemistry classes. Other measures include access to a full-time counselor, student-to-counselor ratios, and access to teachers with more than two years experience, as well as out-of-school suspension rates, retention in grade, and chronic absenteeism.
The analysis "mirrors, and adds to, what we already know from other educational indicators in Pennsylvania," the report concludes. "Overall, we spend generously on public education, and our students, on average, achieve above-average test scores. However, there is deep inequity in how we distribute those resources and in our student outcomes."
RFA makes a special point to note that these inequities aren’t driven solely by Philadelphia, which educates large proportions of the state’s Black and Latino students. It notes that the disparities decline when Philadelphia is removed from the calculations, but they don’t disappear by a long shot. It also notes that other states like New Jersey and Maryland also have large, racially diverse urban areas, "yet those states do not experience the same level of racial disparities as Pennsylvania."
Recent studies have shown that Pennsylvania’s method for allocating education aid discriminates against poor districts with more students of color compared to equally poor districts that are predominantly White. David Mosenkis of the faith-based group POWER conducted the first analysis two years ago, and more recent work by him and WHYY’s Kevin McCorry has confirmed it.
There is a push right now to replace the School Reform Commission in Philadelphia with some kind of local control. Proponents argue that the SRC, established to run the District 15 years ago, has failed in its mission to improve the District’s financial and academic conditions. One big impetus for the state takeover was former Gov. Tom Ridge’s anger at then-Superintendent David Hornbeck’s demand for more state funds. Hornbeck, as POWER would do more than a decade later, framed the issue in moral terms and called out the state’s school funding system as racially biased in its effect, if not in its intent. Ridge demanded, as part of the negotiations that preceded the state takeover, that the city drop a federal lawsuit against the state alleging discrimination in the school funding system. Advocates then, as now, had done the math and had documented the racial disparities.
Now we know that Hornbeck was correct and that the problem has only deepened.
The RFA researchers have high hopes that documenting these disparities so starkly will motivate legislators and policymakers to make significant changes. The new school funding formula adopted earlier this year is a step, but as McCorry has documented, because it applies to only new basic education aid, not to all of it, correcting disparities and bringing all districts to adequacy will take years, if not decades.
A lawsuit over school funding disparities based on the state constitutional guarantee that every child have a "thorough and efficient" education is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
"The racial disparities detailed in this brief are occurring in the face of increasing evidence about the importance of educational equity," the report concludes. "… The data documented in this report should provide educational stakeholders across the state with the information needed to take action to reduce this inequity and ensure that all students receive a quality public education."