|Invisible though they may be to the naked eye, school district borders increasingly trap low-income students in cash-strapped districts struggling to provide the resources available to their wealthier neighbors.|
I sometimes wonder how the inherent unfairness that exists in education funding continues without some kind of revolution taking place.
And then I wake up and remember I live in Pennsylvania.
Perhaps because its a bit complicated and takes more than 15 minutes to understand. Perhaps because not enough people feel any kind of connection with those most adversely affected. Or maybe its just the pall of overall apathy.
Usually, people tend to wake up a bit when faced with examples of kids getting the shaft. After all, we all want the best for our children right?
Maybe we need to broaden the definition of "our children" a bit.
Not that we needed any more evidence of the way cleaving to the property tax as the primary funding source for public education undermines students not fortunate enough to live in a wealthy zip code, but there's more anyway.
It comes in the form of a new report by an organization called EdBuild, a non-profit national organization dedicating to bringing "common sense and fairness to the way states fund public schools."
Their study, "Fault Lines," takes a look at America's most segregated school district borders.
From the examination of more than 33,000 borders between school districts, they the chose the worst 50, the 50 places in America where a line on a map separates well-funded public schools from their polar opposite.
It may surprise you to know that those 50 worst school disparities are concentrated in just 14 states and Pennsylvania is tied with New York for third place. Yay.
Both states have six such districts but perhaps the most shameful part about all of it is that borders between Reading City Schools and those wealthier districts which surround it comprise four of Pennsylvania's six worst disparities.
According to the report, 48 percent of Reading's school children live in poverty.
And four of the districts which surround it -- Schuylkill Valley, Governor Mifflin, Wilson and Wyomissing -- have respective poverty rates of just 10 percent, 11 percent, 11 percent and 12 percent.
We all know these communities to some extent or another. And they are the poster children for the three sentences in the report that crystalize what Pennsylvania's property tax-reliant school funding system is doing to our children.
"Socioeconomic segregation is rising in America's schools, in part because of the structure of education funding. the over-reliance on locally raised property taxes to fund public schools gives wealthier communities the permission to keep their resources awayNow, if that does not describe the conditions under which Pottstown schools labor every day, then slap my face and call me Sally. Obviously, it also describes Reading.
And we need to recognize this is not just affecting "them."
According to the Center for Education Policy Analysis, more than 26 million school children -- 48 percent of all school-age children living in America -- live within the bounds of a high-poverty school district, as cited in EdBuild's report.
That's half the children in America folks.
They are "our children."
And as the Fault Lines report sadly observes:
"Often, just on the other side of an invisible but effectively impermeable district border, their more privileged peers live in better-resourced communities and are taught in classrooms where they are able to learn and grow with abundant resources that are unencumbered by the challenges their peers face every day."That is the reality that half America's children now face thanks to our over-reliance on property taxes and our inability to find another way fund schools.
Financial insecurity, high rates of crime, mental, emotional and physical health problems that create trauma in the lives of these young Americans -- literally physiological changes that affect their brain development -- all make succeeding in school that much harder, as if they did not have enough to contend with already.
Add to that limited access to quality early education and its no wonder that they fall behind the minute they walk into their first kindergarten classroom.
To its credit, Pottstown Schools have addressed these problems -- PEAK is a state and national model for providing the best early education possible on a limited budget; and new efforts to understand and address the impacts of trauma on school children are now underway.
But Pottstown schools cannot single-handedly force the state to bridge the funding gap that still exists despite the positive step toward a fair funding formula, and as a result, the school must spend more becoming a driver of the very high-tax, low-tax base merry go-round that creates the problems they face in the first place.
As Pottstown School Board member Thomas Hylton said last week. "We can't keep going on like this. We're going to have to get creative."
And sadly, the burden for untying this Gordian knot will remain firmly on the shoulders of individual school districts so long as our well-paid state legislatures continue to spend their time worrying about meaningless minutiae like who sells us our alcohol instead of how our schools are funded.
It's within Harrisburg's power to address this problem, and to do so with limited political pain, always the top consideration under the copper dome.
An effort now being championed by Pottstown Mayor Sharon Thomas and highlighted by The Mercury in May when former state representative and Monroe County Comptroller Kelly Lewis came to town to talk about an organization called Equity First.
He argued, rather convincingly, that the increase in education funding contained in the two most
That would still provide more money for the 320 over-funded districts, just not as much.
Pottstown by the way, is Pennsylvania's 14th most underfunded school district. It won't surprise you, given what EdBuild found, to know that Reading is number one on this unenviable list.
Pottstown School District is underfunded every year by $11 million, according to the commission report, said Lewis.
That’s more than 18 percent of this year's $59.6 million Pottstown Schools budget which, by some miracle, did not raise taxes for the second straight year.
Providing an additional share of the additional state educating funding is not a new idea.
In fact it is one of the many recommendations made last year by the fair funding commission, created by former Gov. Tom Corbett and headed by outgoing Republican Representative Mike Vereb of our own Montgomery County, suggesting as much as an additional 10 percent to the underfunded districts over 10 years to help them catch up.
But the General Assembly, in its particular myopic way, focused only on authorizing the formula, not bothering to make sure the funding was arranged to ensure the formula actually does the most good for the schools that need it most.
This allows legislators to go home to the voters and say they did the right thing by "adopting the formula" without most of those voters understanding that they gave out teaspoons to a fleet of floundering ships and said "you're welcome."
As I see it, there are only two ways this changes:
- Legislatively, either through the current legislators getting a clue or by replacing them with some who do.
- Or Pennsylvanians finally wake up to their raw deal their children are being handed and we get that revolution.