This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
This winter, high school junior Jameria Miller would run to Spanish class. But not to get a good seat.
"The cold is definitely a distraction," Jameria says. "We race to class to get the best blankets."
Because the classroom has uninsulated metal walls, Jameria’s teacher would hand out blankets. First come, first served. Such is life in the William Penn School District – an impoverished, predominantly African American school system situated among Philadelphia’s inner-ring suburbs in Delaware County.
The hardest part for Jameria isn’t the cold, though. It’s knowing that life isn’t like this for students in other districts.
"It’s never going to be fair," she says. "They’re always going to be a step ahead of us. They’ll have more money than us, and they’ll get better jobs than us, always."
Before her parents moved, Jameria was one of those students at a better school. She attended classes in the more affluent Upper Moreland district in nearby Montgomery County. That district is largely white and, according to state and local records, spends about $1,200 more per student than William Penn.
That funding difference adds up to better facilities, smaller class sizes, take-home textbooks, and better teacher pay with less turnover. Upper Moreland is also able to set aside money each year for a rainy day fund. William Penn has been spending beyond its means just to get by.
Jameria’s mother, Jamella, says her oldest daughter’s time in wealthier Upper Moreland made a huge academic difference – an advantage her younger daughter did not have.
"Because of [Jameria’s] foundation there, she’s able to excel. Whereas students like my younger one, who started off here, she kind of just plateaued instead," Jamella says.
The Millers chose to leave Upper Moreland and move closer to Philadelphia because they needed more living space to accommodate their large extended family.
"When family need a place to stay, or have a rough patch, they pretty much come stay with us," Jamella says.
Sitting around the dining table in their Delaware County home, Jamella and her husband, Bryant, admit that, when they bought their current house, they knew the public schools weren’t great. So they had a plan.
"We thought we would be able to put our kids in private school. But we had some things that came up. You lost your job," she says to Bryant. "I lost my job. So, financially, it became hard."
Both are working again, but say that private tuition payments are still beyond their means. Bryant says he sometimes wishes they had opted for a smaller house in a district with more resources.
"Having children is all about sacrifice, so sometimes I wish we would have went smaller," he says. "I really do."
Why does one school district have so much less to spend than another just 20 miles away?
Here are a few answers.
First, in Pennsylvania, as in many other states, local property taxes make up a big chunk of the money that schools have to spend on their students. If your community is property-poor, that means less property tax revenue for your schools.
There’s also a paradoxical stress for families in districts like William Penn. Compared to some wealthier districts, they may have higher property tax rates. But because high rates in a property-poor area won’t raise as much revenue as lower rates in a more affluent area, their schools still struggle.
"It just spirals out of control," Jamella says. "And then the district took out a loan to try to fix certain schools that were just falling apart, and now the taxes are going up another 3 percent this year. It’s just a continual spiral."
To slow the spiral, many states send extra dollars to their low-wealth districts. But Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom of all states for how little it kicks in.
And then there’s the state legislature.