Neighboring districts show funding disparities

Neighboring districts show funding disparities

Minority schools suffer worst gaps, have least opportunities

By EMMA RESTREPO |
PUBLISHED: February 10, 2022 at 2:53 p.m. | UPDATED: February 12, 2022 at 7:08 p.m.

Editor’s Note: This is the second of four articles written by Emma Restrepo, reporter for the disParities Media Project of Children First.

Pottstown and Pottsgrove high schools belong to two different school districts but sit just 1.9 miles apart. Despite their proximity, the resources they offer to students and families are worlds apart.

The same is true for Norristown and Wissahickon high schools, also in Montgomery County. The two school districts border each other, although the schools are 10 miles apart. In this pairing, Wissahickon is the lucky one.

According to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Pottstown’s total annual revenue per student, including all federal, state and local sources, was $19,425. In Pottsgrove, it was $19,858 in the 2020 school year. In other words, Pottsgrove receives $433 more per student.

A more marked difference exists between Norristown and Wissahickon. Norristown received $19,785 in total revenue per student; Wissahickon, $21,693. In other words, a Norristown student received $1,908 less in the 2020 school year than a Wissahickon student, according to the Department of Education.

Norristown High School graduate Thaddaeus Peay hopes to teach in his old school.(Photo by Emma Restrepo)

“There is this street where, if you live on one side of the street, you go to Norristown, but if you live on the other side of the street, you go to Wissahickon,” said Thaddaeus Peay, 22, a Norristown High School alumnus and advocate for education rights. “And Norristown and Wissahickon resources are totally different. It is just baffling how one person who lives on one side of the street can experience such better resources.”

Yesenia Zavala-Jimenez , 17, has experienced similar school funding differences firsthand. She went to Upper Merion for most of her school years and then attended a high school in Norristown.

She describes discrepancies in access to school supplies and technology.

At Upper Merion, Zavala-Jimenez had access to more enrichment activities and supplies. “I did ceramics,” she says. “I enjoy art. My teacher had three shelves or glazes that were always all filled. She was like, ‘Whatever runs out, you know, we’ll just buy another one.’ In Norristown, my teacher had, like, these big jugs so [the glazes] could last her for a long time. She was like, ‘These are really expensive’.”

Yesenia Zavala speaking from the living room of her house in Norristown (Emma Restrepo — For MediaNews Group)

Like many young people, Zavala-Jimenez also recognizes quality in tech when she sees it: “In Upper Merion, we had MacBooks; we had iPads in middle school. In Norristown, I had a Chromebook. I didn’t even know Chromebook existed.”

According to the Center for American Progress, this kind of disparity is common across our nation. Poor and minority students are concentrated in the least-funded schools, most of which are located in urban, inner ring suburbs, or rural areas.

A report from the center notes, “in every tangible measure, from qualified teachers to curricular offerings, schools that serve the greatest number of students of color had significantly fewer resources than schools serving primarily white students.”

According to Fund Our Schools PA, an advocacy coalition, Pennsylvania has one of the widest funding gaps between low-wealth and high-wealth districts in the country. A typical high-wealth school district spends $4,800 more per student per year than a typical low-wealth school district – and that gap has been growing.

For Peggy Lee-Clark, CEO of Pottstown Area Economic Development, Inc. (PAED), the path to decreasing disparity should start with consolidating school districts.

Pennsylvania has five hundred school districts for approximately 1.7 million enrolled students in 2021. The number of districts and their boundaries was decided by legislators more than 40 years ago. By and large, since then, the wealthiest districts have only grown richer and the poorer ones have become even more challenged.

Peggy Lee-Clark, executive director of PAED.(Photo by Emma Restrepo)

Clark, who looks at the issue through a business lens, thinks that combining wealthier districts with less well-funded districts would provide more resources to support students who require academic remediation and provide opportunities for experiential learning that are often denied to them.

She gives the example of field trips; underfunded districts often have to eliminate them. By combining a wealthier district with a poor one that is separated by just a mile, Clark suggests, perhaps all students could experience better educational opportunities.

Unfortunately, discrepancies aren’t due just to unchanging school district boundaries.

A huge piece of the problem is the way education is funded in the state. Pennsylvania schools get 57.7 percent of public education resources from local property taxes, 34 percent comes from the state, and 3.2 percent from the federal government A state law that, in theory at least, required the state to fund at least half of the cost of K-12 public education was eliminated in 1991.

“It has been a tradition in Pennsylvania that much of the funding depends on local wealth. And that, of course, hurts people who live in districts that don’t have a lot of wealth,” explains Michael Churchill.

Churchill is one of the attorneys leading the lawsuit challenging the state’s funding system for public education. He works with the Public Interest Law Center.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First. (MediaNews Group File Photo)

One of the drivers of inequity in the Pennsylvania system is the way it tends to divorce funding from enrollment levels. According to Donna Cooper, Children First executive director, a nonprofit that advocates for children’s rights, “Pennsylvania’s funding distribution has mainly remained the same, while some school districts have substantially increased enrollment. This has helped to create one of the most inequitable education financing systems in the nation,” she said.

Some of the districts receiving the most funding from the state per pupil in Pennsylvania, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education, are Montour, Benton Area, and Fairfield. The districts receiving the least funding are Shamokin Area, Greater Nanticoke Area, and Mount Carmel Area.

Lack of funding puts additional pressure on parents. Some have the resources to move to a new community; others don’t have that opportunity.

And those who can move may have to leave a community where they’ve put down roots.

For example, Gregory Glenn, 53, lived in Pottstown his entire life and was part of the first generation in his family to attend post-secondary school.

Gregory Glenn

Glenn used to serve on the board of the Pottstown Chamber of Commerce, and now he is a member of the board for the Foundation for Pottstown Education.

But, as a parent of two, he decided to send his children to Pottsgrove. He said that he did not realize the differences between the two systems when he was in high school himself, but as an adult, they are apparent to him.

“My kids went to Pottsgrove, they got a good education, played sports, didn’t have the struggle with books, teachers, constant changes in positions like the athletic director and coaches, and both of them are now college graduates.”

Even though Pottstown and Pottsgrove are two miles apart, he said “the difference I’ve seen was how the money is being allocated, how the teachers are being supported, and how the sports programs are supported. They are both public schools, but the school systems seem different. I’ve noticed over the past 15 to 20 years, many Pottstown High School students have transferred over to Pottsgrove.”

Pottstown School Board member Laura Johnson outside Pottstown Middle School.(Emma Restrepo — For MediaNews Group)

Laura Johnson, who serves on Pottstown’s School Board and is one of the leaders of the advocacy group Pennsylvania for Fair Funding, as well as a parent, said that Pottstown is underfunded by $12 to $13 million each year.

“If you go to a nearby school district, they have things we can’t even dream of,” she said. “Our curriculum budget hasn’t grown in 15 years. We are struggling with the basics. Teachers have bigger class sizes. We are dealing with more significant needs because many of our students are coming 20 steps behind their peers in the wealthier districts.”

For example, she said, Pottstown is unable to keep up with the demand for English as a New Language (ENL) curriculum and Advanced Placement (AP) courses. “We have six [AP classes] at our high school, and our district next door has 40. We cannot compete with that.” Norristown School District faces similar money pressures, leading it to struggle to keep up with its neighboring districts. Christopher Dormer, Norristown superintendent, has had to make tough staffing decisions to balance the budget.

Fund our Schools PA says that the state’s reliance on local wealth to fund schools disproportionately affects students of color. “Black and Latino students are concentrated in the least wealthy districts, with 50 percent of Black students and 40 percent of Latino students attending schools in the bottom 20 percent of local wealth.”

Many parents and young people hope to use education as a tool to avoid inheriting poverty, to create a better future.

In Pennsylvania, that tool is blunted by the impact of deep-seated disparities in funding.

“In Pennsylvania, the differences in education [between zip codes] are vast,” Churchill said. “And we have known for years that this is unfair.”

Whether that gap is addressed this year as a result of a budget submitted by Gov. Tom Wolf remains to be seen.

Tom Wolf
Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf delivers his budget address for the 2022-23 fiscal year to a joint session of the Pennsylvania House and Senate in Harrisburg, Tuesday, Feb. 8. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Wolf’s budget calls for $416 million more for education; including $100 million for Level Up, a new initiative providing more equitable funding to the 100 most underfunded districts and the students they serve; $200 million increase to the fair funding formula that steers funding to the neediest districts; $30 million more for early education, including $25 million to expand Pre-K Counts and $5 million to expand Head Start; and $11 million for preschool Early Intervention.

Pennsylvania is now projected to have more than $9 billion in surplus cash by July 1, largely thanks to federal pandemic aid covering Medicaid costs and federal subsidies juicing the economy.

Under Wolf’s plan, districts that would see the biggest increases include cities with growing poverty, and growing — and sometimes affluent — suburbs where changing demographics are not fully recognized by how the state funds schools.

Pottstown, which is among the top 10 underfunded districts in Pennsylvania, would see a significant increase under Wolf’s budget. Reading stands to see $64 million under Wolf’s budget, according to the Associated Press.

Wolf has proposed large public education increases in previous budgets, and they have been reduced by the Republican majority in the General Assembly in the final budgets that are ultimately adopted.

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