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DNC opens against backdrop of education inequality

Welcome to Pennsylvania, a battleground state that has the biggest gaps in the nation in per-pupil spending among its rich and poor school districts.

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

Shauneille Taylor, the principal of Gideon Elementary School in North Philadelphia, doesn’t think of the two weeks off for winter break as a well-earned respite from the trials of running a needy urban school.

Instead, she worries: Will her students have enough food?

“I go home and think, ‘Are they receiving the proper nourishment?’" Taylor said. "I lose sleep over it.”

She knows that for many of her students, the free breakfast and lunch available at school are the only meals they regularly eat.

This is daily life for students in a school less than four miles from Independence Hall.

Economic inequality was a major theme in the Democratic primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. But there was very little discussion of education, a key area where inequality and segregation by race and class are embedded in policy. The results affect the futures of millions of children, and the situation is not getting any better.

Taylor was talking to reporters at the end of a press conference last week where it was announced that her school would be one of nine “community schools” in Philadelphia. In the model of community schools, a major policy priority of the new mayor, Jim Kenney, health services and social services are located in the schools themselves. The effort aims to leverage city resources and private partnerships to effectively confront the appalling circumstances in which so many of the city’s students live. As an education reform strategy, the idea is to create the conditions to better prepare children to learn.

As the party gathers in the birthplace of democracy to nominate Clinton for president, it is also convening in the poorest among the 10 most populous U.S. cities. In Philadelphia, 28 percent of the population, and 39 percent of those under 18 – that’s 135,000 children – live under the federal poverty line, according to the most recent census figures.

Pennsylvania, a political battleground state, that has the biggest gaps in the nation in per-pupil spending between its rich and poor school districts. The mostly dysfunctional government in Harrisburg has a shameful record of not just tolerating these gaps, but nurturing and preserving them since the 1990s.

Not coincidentally, Pennsylvania also has one of the largest achievement gaps between White and Black students, and non-poor and economically disadvantaged students, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And the state share of education spending, compared to local taxes, is among the lowest.

Reinforcing disparities

Pennsylvania is merely the starkest example of the counterproductive school-funding system found in the United States, virtually alone in the developed world. By steadfastly relying on local property taxes, this system assures that those already better off get more resources and the poor get less.

“What we have in place is a system that continues to reinforce place-based disparities in educational funding,” said Thomas Sugrue, a professor of social and cultural analysis and history at New York University and a specialist in urban policy. “We have long had a series of public policies that concentrate poor and working-class people, particularly of color, into a relatively small number of districts, most of which have serious funding limitations.”

As a result, in major Northeast and Midwest metropolitan areas, there are significant disparities between cities and nearby districts.

“Perversely,” Sugrue said, “we put students with lots of socioeconomic advantage in districts with lots of resources to provide them with even more.”

And students with disadvantages are in districts that provide them less. The result is that in Philadelphia, educators like Taylor press ahead heroically in schools that often lack amenities such as a full-time nurse and art and music classes, and principals worry about whether kids have enough to eat.

The federal poverty line is about $25,000 for a family of four, and the “deep poverty” rate is just under $12,000. One in eight Philadelphia residents, or about 200,000 people, live in “deep poverty.”

As it happens, $12,000 is the median household income level of the census tract in which Gideon School is located – meaning that many, if not most, of Taylor’s students probably live in deep poverty. Families in deep poverty are more likely to move from place to place frequently, are more apt to be homeless, and are more prone to hunger and other ills. These characteristics are debilitating to educational attainment. According to the mayor’s office, more than a third of adults in the Gideon neighborhood report “poor or fair health,” and the rate of child hospitalization due to asthma in the neighborhood is sky-high, 97 per 10,000 children under 18.

Gideon and its circumstances are part of a long legacy of residential and educational segregation that shows no sign of abating, even as it is receiving more attention from the news media and policymakers. The historic Brown v. Board of Education decision more than 60 years ago did very little to affect segregation in the North and Midwest. The discriminatory policies here – notably federally sanctioned housing discrimination against blacks, which happened through redlining of neighborhoods, bias in lending, and the like – were subtler than Jim Crow, but no less destructive. There is a growing awareness and acknowledgement now that segregation is not an accident of personal choice but a deliberate policy pressed by various levels of government, led by Washington, D.C.

“We arguably put together the students who need the most support and resources in districts that don’t have the tools to provide those extra supports adequately,” Sugrue said.

Overall, he added,”There’s a deafening silence on the question of educational inequality in both parties and an unwillingness to tackle the core issues.”

Brutal budget cuts

Philadelphia spends $12,177 per pupil, according to the latest state figures, which puts it in the bottom fifth among the state’s 501 districts. Lower Merion, separated from the city by a single street, has a median household income exceeding $100,000 and spends $24,393 per pupil – almost exactly twice what the Philadelphia School District does – in its modern, no-expense-spared schools.

The last few years in the Philadelphia School District have been brutal. Facing huge state and federal education aid cuts during the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, Philadelphia was forced to reduce the number of nurses and counselors, raise class sizes, cut most art and music classes, eliminate many extracurricular activities, and generally strip schools of anything that could remotely be considered a “frill.” It closed 23 schools in 2013. Many were “low-performing” and half-empty due to demographic shifts and the expansion of charter schools, but all had histories and supporters in their neighborhoods.

During the 2015-16 school year, the 135,000-student district could not fill all its teacher vacancies, and thousands of students, many in the city’s most impoverished schools, endured a year of revolving-door substitutes. The result was thousands of students who need it the most not getting consistent instruction from well-qualified teachers.

The shortage of teachers resulted in another perverse reality: It allowed the Philadelphia District to bank some money, and as a result this year it ran a little fund balance instead of a deficit for the first time in five years. The beleaguered superintendent, William Hite, said in announcing his new budget that he finally felt he could focus on what kinds of things he could do to actually teach children, instead of building a list of what he had to do without.

But make no mistake, the District still forecasts a structural deficit in a few years, with its stable recurring revenue sources not keeping up with escalating expenses.

The unfairness of the situation is by no means limited to Philadelphia. Tax rates are high in the city’s poorest – and least White – suburbs, such as the William Penn School District on its southwestern border. Because property values are lower, however, the amount collected is relatively small. A short distance away, in Radnor and Lower Merion, awash in lucrative commercial property and boasting high housing values, tax rates are low and the money raised is substantial. The result is that the poor and working class pay more taxes relative to their means, but raise not nearly enough money to provide their children with an adequate, much less a superb, education.

The superintendent in Erie, at the other end of Pennsylvania, has had to cut so much from basic programming that he has been talking about closing the district’s high schools and dispersing its students to surrounding districts, where there are more amenities. Most of his students are Black and most of the surrounding districts are White. This is not a prospect that is being received well.

Erie spends $12,366 per pupil, and in other aging industrial cities in Pennsylvania, it is worse. Allentown spends $11,936; Reading, $10,707.

Sanders raised the issue

There was one mention of all this during the primary campaign. In January, Bernie Sanders suggested that states end the reliance on property taxes to fund education and that the federal government take a larger role.

"One of the things that I have always believed is that, in terms of education, we have to break our dependency on the property tax, because what happens is the wealthiest suburbs can in fact have great schools but poor, inner-city schools cannot,” Sanders said at the Black & Brown Democratic Forum in Iowa. “So I think we need equality in terms of how we fund education, and to make sure the federal government plays an active role to make sure that those schools who need it the most get the funds that they deserve."

But this idea did not come up again. Clearly, upending the property tax system would be a hard sell, fuel for the argument that Sanders had good ideas but no way of achieving them. With the addition of Tim Kaine to the Democratic ticket, there may be more discussion of the issue. He said in his speech introducing himself to the country that “education is the key to everything we want to accomplish in the country.” His wife, Anne Holton, is the secretary of education in Virginia and is keenly aware of the disparities in funding and opportunity that exist there and elsewhere. Holton, who is the daughter of a governor, attended Richmond public schools when her father decided to desegregate Virginia schools – 16 years after Brown.

And the idea certainly didn’t make its way into the Democratic platform on education, which nevertheless is calling for ensuring that "there are great schools for every child no matter where they live," and saying that the federal government must play a critical role in making sure every child has access to a world-class education.

"We believe that a strong public education system is an anchor of our democracy, a propeller of the economy, and the vehicle through which we help all children achieve their dreams."

A section on poverty promises to develop a national strategy, coordinated across all levels of government, to combat poverty" and proclaims, "in the richest country in the world, no one, especially our children, should go hungry.

New funding formula limited

This year, the Pennsylvania legislature finally adopted a new education funding formula that takes into account the circumstances of individual districts and factors in their actual enrollment sizes. For more than two decades, it had no such formula, instead doling out increases in education aid based on politics and decreeing that no district would get less money than it had received the year before – the so-called “hold harmless” doctrine – even if enrollment declined and the district experienced other changes regarding demographics and need.

But as WHYY’s Kevin McCorry has ably hammered home in a series of recent stories, legislators pointedly chose to apply the new formula only to new money, not all of the basic education aid, which means it only affects $352 million out of $10 billion – a mere 3 percent of the total – thus baking in more than two decades of growing inequities.

At this rate, it will take generations for the state’s low-income districts to catch up in spending. The Republican legislature has stymied a Democratic governor, Tom Wolf, who won largely due to his promises to significantly increase the state’s share of spending on education. Although there was a boost in state education funding this year, it has been nowhere near what Wolf had initially proposed.

To be sure, Pennsylvania lawmakers don’t consider it a priority to send more resources to the neediest; in fact, some have the reverse attitude. They say that poor test scores justify less spending and Philadelphia (and other high-poverty cities) wastes the money that it has. Although the new formula accounts for the impact of concentrated poverty, individual lawmakers don’t appear to be convinced.

Assuming continued segregation

The two dominant education reform strategies – community schools and expansion of charter schools – assume that segregation by race and class will continue. Half of the charter schools in Pennsylvania are in Philadelphia, and almost all across the state are in low-income areas.

“Both solutions of charter or community schools take for granted that you can make dramatic changes in educational outcomes by leaving economic and racial segregation patterns intact,” Sugrue, the NYU professor, said. “And there’s not a lot of evidence that we can do that. The evidence says if there is socioeconomic and racial segregation, they go hand in hand with educational disadvantage.”

Under either reform scenario, he said, “You can make incremental improvements, but you are not getting at the root cause of the problem.”

Charter schools have been a contentious issue in Pennsylvania. Because of the way they are funded in the state and the lack of sufficient state and local funds, charter expansion is coming at the expense of students who remaining in the district-run schools. (One crucial change in the Democratic party platform on education recognized that this tends to be true in most states.)

Payments to charter schools, which 70,000 city students attend, make up the single biggest item in the Philadelphia School District’s budget. Pennsylvania’s charter school law was written in 1997, and this law and its system for supporting charters have not been significantly revised since then. The state auditor general recently called it “the worst charter school law in America.” And although advocates on all sides agree it needs updating, there is no agreement on how to do it. So nothing changes.

The low overall per-pupil amount available in Philadelphia hurts charter students, too, because payments to charters are governed by what a district spends on students in its traditional schools. So all the entities that educate low-income students are fighting over an inadequate pot of funds.

The community schools strategy – using schools to provide a one-stop shop for needed social services in depressed neighborhoods – also assumes that racial and economic segregation is the norm.

Educational apartheid continues

Whatever the solution to America’s educational apartheid, there has been little effort behind a strategy that experts and research agree has shown positive change –desegregation.

“There is very little political will to accomplish socioeconomic and racial desegregation that will improve educational outcomes,” Sugrue said.

Delaware was one of the original Brown v. Board states, and under court order, it split up Wilmington into parts of four districts that stretched into the suburbs. But now Delaware is moving forward with a redistricting plan set in motion more than a decade ago that has resulted in more isolation of poor students of color in schools overburdened and unable to cope.

On the federal level, Secretary of Education John King is searching for ways to bring desegregation and diversity into the conversation about what makes a school truly good. President Obama put a $120 million competitive grant program in his 2017 budget to promote school diversity.

In a recent speech, King said: “More than six decades after Brown v. Board of Education, we must find ways to make our schools better reflections of the diverse society we have become. We all know intuitively that the more separate we are, the weaker our democratic society becomes. Research shows that one of the best things we can do for all children — black or white, rich or poor — is give them a chance to attend strong, socioeconomically diverse schools.”

He goes on to endorse “innovative, voluntary, locally driven efforts to promote socioeconomic diversity in schools. We should embrace opportunities where a middle school arts magnet program, or a dual-language elementary school, or a regional science and technology high school can help to break down the concentration of our highest-needs students in schools with access to fewer resources.”

But that, too, is complicated. Some families in gentrifying parts of Philadelphia are starting “friends of” groups to support neighborhood schools, but this effort to desegregate through “natural” means often meets suspicion from longtime residents afraid of being displaced. School diversity does not always top their lists of needs.

Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, who is writing a book on the history of federal policies that that promoted segregation, noted recently: “When low-income minority children can attend truly integrated schools, their achievement rises, not because black children need to sit next to white children to succeed, but because integrated schools are not overwhelmed with children’s social and economic problems and can instead focus on instruction. The absence of supermarkets in segregated neighborhoods contributes to poor diets, reduced cognitive ability in children, higher health care costs, and shorter lifespans.”

Principal Shauneille Taylor of Gideon Elementary surely knows this. For now, she is hoping that the city’s community schools effort will allow her to partner with a local retailer and start a food pantry in her school.

Hillary Clinton, who started her professional career as a child advocate and will accept the Democratic nomination on Thursday night, has not emphasized education reform in her campaign. Her major statements on the issue came in speeches to the two national teachers’ unions, which have both endorsed her.

She has occasionally spoken passionately about every child’s right to a good education. But there are few hints of how a Clinton administration might try to move policy in this area.

“There should not be a single public school in our country where any person wouldn’t want to send their child,” she told a gathering at a high school in North Carolina. “And that is the way we should think about it. And if you are in a position of public responsibility, look in the mirror and ask yourself: Would you send your child or your grandchild to these schools? And if the answer is no, do something about it.”

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