I’m All for Equity (Unless it Means I Have to Be Fair)

Everyone wants equity. It sounds great. It rolls off the tongue and it goes well in speeches and pontifications. Everyone wants equity until you explain that they would need to decrease their privileges, share their accumulated wealth (especially any that was amassed through oppressive means), and make space for more diners at the table. Then, the very same advocates suddenly decide that inequity is just and equity is oppressive (to them).

Pennsylvania’s politicians recently took huge steps out of hell to finally acknowledge (again) that equity in school funding go hand-in-hand. This took far too long, and, unfortunately, we are not at the finish line just yet.

EVERYONE CLAIMS TO WANT EQUITY FOR OUR CHILDREN, BUT DO THEY REALLY?

In regards to equity, there are some points in time where the federal government should step up and hold the line on things, like PA deciding to underfund schools for decades. Until last week, Pennsylvania was one of only a few states to not have any type of student-based formula to distribute billions of dollars of school funding. This led to PA having the worst school funding inequities in the country. This would have been a great time for the Office of Civil Rights to step in and say, “No, you are not going to continue to underfund kids’ education. It is a civil right to have a quality education, and quality must be properly funded.” The OCR did not take my advice to sue PA.

UNDERFUNDING SCHOOLS IS A STATE-SANCTIONED CIVIL RIGHTS VIOLATION

However, after many years and an ongoing campaign from parents, community members, educators and some politicians, this year, the general assembly finally decided to pass a funding formula for schools. It feels a little bit like Groundhog Day though. Here’s why:

“In July 2006, the General Assembly called for an independent statewide Costing-Out Study to determine the resources needed to help all students achieve the state’s academic standards.  Act 114 of 2006 required the study to address two issues – adequacy and equity.  The study of adequacy was to determine what it costs for all of our students – no matter where they live – to attain state academic standards.  The study of equity was to address the growing gap between high- and low-spending districts and the implications for the quality of education received by students and for local taxpayers.  That study, completed in December 2007, concluded that Pennsylvania was under-funding K-12 education by more than $4 billion and that the system then in place relied too heavily on local property taxes.

The study determined that 94 percent of Pennsylvania districts had inadequate resources to meet the learning needs of all their students and that 92 percent of the state’s students attended school in those districts.  This is not an isolated problem.  The study also found that due to heavy reliance on local property taxes, districts with the lowest wealth were forced to levy higher tax rates than wealthier districts but still could not raise enough revenue to finance an adequate education for all their students.”

Keep in mind PA’s legislatures only called for a costing out study in early 2000s when then-governor Rendell said he wanted to increase school funding. At that point, to slow down the idea of giving more money to Black, Brown, and poor school districts, the overwhelmingly white General Assembly stated that they would hold their collective breath until a study was done. Fine. The costing out study was done and revealed what everyone who had a lick of sense knew: PA was willfully oppressing students and undermining districts and families.

OK, let’s celebrate, right?! No. When you don’t remain vigilant, more oppressors are bound to attack. So, we should smile, give a fist bump, and then double down on our demands for full equity. We saw what happened before…

PENNSYLVANIA WAS ALREADY UNDERFUNDING SCHOOLS AND THEN TOOK 1 BILLION MORE DOLLARS AWAY

Following Gov. Rendell, a new governor came in and cut a billion dollars of school funding. Yes, a BILLION. And, yes, there was a recession, and he chose to make kids pay for the recession. PA decided that, instead of following the Constitution (it is only a piece of paper, they generally capriciously choose when they want to follow it) and fairly funding public education, they used federal bailout money to do it. Everyone and their grandma knew that this stimulus money was not going to last forever. But, instead of doing what was right and determine how PA was going to actually fund schools equitably, they used the windfall and did not address the foundational oppression in their budgeting processes. Predictably, once the stimulus funding ran out, schools crashed right back to where they started-inadequate funding.

Fast forward to today. After yet another “study” (I notice people like to study oppression. They just don’t want to do sh*t about it.), PA’s legislators finally came to the conclusion (again) that the state was not properly funding schools. They determined that there should be more equity in funding, and that districts should be able to predict how much they would receive based off of the poverty, compounded poverty, English Language learners, etc. They didn’t want to touch trauma, but just the fact that they publicly acknowledged that students who are in deep poverty need more support and resources was a faked epiphany for this group of policy makers.

PA FINALLY HAS A FUNDING FORMULa

PA now has a student-weighted funding formula. It takes into consideration a lot of factors, including poverty, who is learning English, how poor is the local tax base, etc. When your city funds schools mainly through property taxes(the school district gets 55% of Philly’s tax revenues), it doesn’t bode well for you if many huge non-profits and for-profits don’t pay property taxes, and those who do pay taxes may not have homes that garner a lot of tax revenue. In 2015, funding from the state dropped to 53% of total district funds-a 30 year low. While Philly, one of the poorest big cities in the country, has steadily increased its share of funding of our schools.

So, why am I not dancing a jig? One, I don’t do that. Secondly, they took too damn long. And, thirdly, the formula will NOT be applied to the existing budget. The new fair funding formula will only apply to new funds, $150 million. That is roughly 2.5% of our state’s school funding. Yes, less than 3% of the funds will be money funneled through an equitable formula. The rest of the funding will be based on the previous “formula.” So, our kids are getting “good crumbs” but not the whole and equitable meal.

It is a sprinkle of equity on the foundation of inequity. And, anyone who knows basic math realizes that equity divided by inequity equals inequity. The old formulas and plans remain intact (Read: most of the money that we distribute to schools is not fairly distributed. But, we will keep that the same-get over it. However, to appease you, we will increase funding and fairly distribute that part of the budget.)

There is a proposal to raise $400 million dollars in new school funding…over the next eight years. So, the kids in 1st grade will see the state treat them with some levels of fairness by the time they reach the 8th grade. Great.

PA also has an interesting model where it holds schools harmless. This means that if you are an affluent suburb, and a trend develops where families move back to the city, PA won’t decrease your school funding the next year at all because it would wreak too much havoc on your city/town. So, the limited amount of funding that PA has doesn’t actually follow students. I would not advocate for every dollar to leave immediately once a child leaves a district. If we did that, Pittsburgh, for example, would lose 65 million dollars. However, there is likely a middle ground that could respect that the money should follow the students, not remain where they used to attend.

That massive issue aside, PA has always known that it is underfunding districts across the state. In 2006, that same costing out study called out that PA was short by about $4.3 billion. Last year, an advocacy group did a study and determined that PA‘s contribution to school funding was short by about $3.6 billion. And, this year, another advocacy group, which is rightfully challenging the state legislature in PA’s Supreme Court over this very issue, found that an additional $3.2 billion dollars needed to be added to the state’s school funding plan.

In response to all of this, the privileged folks who throw money at anything and everything they want to solve, told Black, Brown, and poor families that they did not need more money for their children’s education.

AN UNHOLY STANCE AGAINST CHILDREN

The backlash to provide funding equity is coming from all corners. Lamar Alexander, Republican chairman of the Senate education committee, and Randi Weingarten, AFT president, both derided the notion that there should be equal footing for all students. Their alliance by itself may not be unholy, but their stance on the issue of equity for children most surely is.

Although fairness is claimed to be the American way, equal funding for schools isn’t looked at through a fairness lens. Perhaps because Black and Brown kids are usually the ones asking for fairness.  On average, districts with high levels of poverty receive $1,200 less per student than districts with low levels of poverty-in Pennsylvania, poor districts receive 33% less than affluent ones.

MY KIDS NEED MORE MONEY, BLACK KIDS don’t

“They’re making an assumption that more money will buy you a better education, and we haven’t seen evidence of that,” said Jenn Kocher, spokeswoman for PA senate Republicans.

Yes, we do assume that. And, so do you, Jenn. Your school district of Camp Hill, PA has four schools. Four. And, while on the surface, the per-pupil spending in Camp Hill ($13,468) looks almost comparable to Philadelphia’s ($12,570), your free-and-reduced lunch numbers pale in comparison to Philadelphia’s. 9% of your student population would be considered impoverished. At more than 80%, Philadelphia educates more students eligible for free and reduced lunches than any other district in the state-that’s almost twice the statewide average of 43 percent.

Jenn, Randi, etc., your hypocrisy is showing (again).

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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