Urban School Funding: An Era of Separate and Still Unequal

What is one to surmise about today’s educational systems, specifically our nation’s public urban school districts in relation to whether or not they are being adequately funded?

Dating as far back to America’s seminal K-12 learning environments, there were remnants of unequal funding formulas among urban, rural, and suburban school districts. Then, to hear, see, and recognize that this financial disparity remains a topic of discussion without any concrete solution in the making, is quite maddening.

To the novice educator, and to those who are unfamiliar with the idiosyncrasies associated with an urban school district is to know that these academic settings are predominantly populated by significantly high percentages of students from low-income to poverty stricken families. Adding to this reality is the fact that many of the country’s urban school districts house considerably depleted schools that are aesthetically unappealing, outdated, or, in some instances, vacant.

The aforesaid is relevant to note, because there are roughly 7.2 million students being educated in these facilities on an annual basis. Moreover, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), a branch of the U.S. Department of Education that collects information on schools, reports that there are approximately 6.6 million students from low-income families in 23 states negatively affected by local and state funding disparities. Consequently, Pennsylvania, where a group of Black male educators formed The Fellowship/BMEC, is the state with the worst funding disparities between low-income and high-income schools.

2% Is Not Enough

The Fellowship, a group of Black male educators (teachers, deans, administrators, and CEOs) in the city of Philadelphia whose simplistic vision is to improve the number of Black male teachers in our urban school systems, has a motto: “2% is Not Enough.”

The 2% illustrate the number of Black male teachers who are employed in our nation’s schools. The Fellowship’s motivation is also deeply rooted in the plight of those students we serve and educate on a daily basis.

Robert Parker (pictured right at a rally he organized at the state capitol in Harrisburg, PA), a member of the Fellowship and current high school lead teacher asserts that “the issue is not about funding urban school districts, but [about] providing equitable funding for poor school districts.”

To Parker’s point, recent reports have noted that Pennsylvania’s education funding system is “irrational and inequitable.” In fact, as of this year, there is evidence that Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts receive 33% less than its wealthiest districts for per pupil expenditures.

As a lead teacher in one of Philadelphia’s inner city high schools, this angers Parker because “those who need more, get less, and those with less needs, get more.” “When districts are funded,” says The Fellowship member, “the state does not take in account poverty levels…within a district. The funding issue is about class, which to me, links back to race.”

With respect to Parker’s beliefs, identifying an equitable funding formula may never be this country’s reality, let alone desire. Specifically, deliberations on this topic have always focused on whether federal, state, and/or local governments should be rendering the support for financially inept school districts. This remains a debatable and controversial topic, primarily because federal dollars were never intended to finance our country’s public school systems; the onus has always been placed on state and local governmental agencies.

Breaking the Cycle of Poverty

Considering this past year’s budget impasse, where public schools did not receive funding for the first 6-months of the fiscal year, placing this responsibility in the hands of Pennsylvania’s legislators makes this issue even more pressing. One may argue that there is likely even less motivation to right this ship, now that majority of today’s public school students are children of color.

“There’s scant evidence,” says Sharif El-Mekki, co-founder of The Fellowship, “that most of Pennsylvania’s politicians can stomach, let alone fathom, equitable funding of schools at the levels that Black, Brown, and poor students’ humanity and collective future calls for…” El-Mekki later adds, “At this point, we strongly believe that the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has more than sufficient evidence and reason to intervene on behalf of our oppressed children and communities.”

Vincent Cobb, one of The Fellowship’s influential and key founding members, explained that equitably funding schools has generational ramifications if not addressed.

“This is not only about [funding] schools,” said Cobb, who is the director of marketing for The Fellowship, “but this is about the life trajectory of students who will be impacted for generations, because of the zip code they live in.”

In Pennsylvania, school district funding is heavily dependent on local property taxes, justifying why wealthier locales, with a more robust tax base, have more financial capital than others. To this end, education advocates from Philadelphia have requested that the state legislators allocate an additional $400 million into the 2016-17 school budgets. If this is approved, the School District of Philadelphia will have access to approximately $75 million of this total.

Still, Parker and Cobb both feel that enough is enough; and, if our legislators continue to toil with what is the right or wrong funding formula for our schools, breaking the cycle of poverty will become less of a possibility.

This is not the type of game our [politicians] and [policymakers] should be willing to gamble on the heads of our youth,” said Cobb. “This is a ‘by any means necessary’ fight for the future of our communities. We have to build the kind of political will in Black and Brown communities that is direct, clear, and strikes a mighty blow. We have that power and fight in us; let’s wield it for the betterment of our youth, schools, and communities.”

If interested in helping The Fellowship bring an equal funding formula to Pennsylvania, please sign our petition that is being sent to the state’s legislators. Click (here) for the letter to the Governor and members of the General Assembly.

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Kenneth D. Waters

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