Our School Funding System is Racist, But Don’t Call Us Racists

In the past, we were told were were 3/5th of a human being. Today, our students are told their education is worth a fraction of the cost of white students’ education.

Our school has over one million dollars less to educate our students than we had nine years ago. Over one million dollars cut from our school community. The value the state placed on an educated Black child was clear.

But, I thought help was on the way. I even told my students.

However, we now know, if your district has a substantial number of Black or Brown kids, you will receive less money. Significantly less money.

Pretty much forever.

Pennsylvania was lacking a fair, weighted funding formula; yet, last year, it finally came out of the Dark Ages and became the 48th state to develop an actual system to distribute funding to the 500 school districts across the state (why there are so many districts in PA is another blog, another day, another headache). So, finally, there is a fair way to distribute funds.

Or, so we thought.

My mother used to tell us that there are enough resources for every single human being on earth. The only time there is not, is when others have far more than their share.

We thought the new funding formula would ensure equity. we were wrong

Pennsylvania’s legislators decided that they wanted to hold the school districts that had, over many years, accumulated more wealth through the inequitable distribution of state funding harmless. This means that if the new funding formula was actually applied, over 5.5 billion dollars of school funding would be allocated based off of the actual needs of students across the state.

Districts that were receiving far more than their share would have needed to make adjustments and spend money more responsibly and frugally (something the state politicians are always telling the school districts that serve the highest needs children).

So, when we thought that the most unjust state in regard to funding gaps between districts was about to become more friendly to children living in poverty, we came to our senses.

No, Pennsylvania was not interested in actual equity and justice. The new funding formula that we thought was here to save the day, would not be applied to the actual state budget. Only new funding (which isn’t guaranteed on a yearly basis) would be cleansed and equitably distributed across the state. That means that instead of 5.5 billion dollars being divided up equitably, 400 million dollars would be. That is not a small amount, but when you look at $400 million dollars allocated towards justice and 5.5 billion allocated towards injustice, it is a problem.

It gets worse.

In Pennsylvania, the whiter the district, the more money the state system provides towards their education. The Blacker the district, the less money per pupil the receive. This is institutional racism at some of its most pernicious levels. It bakes injustice into the very system (education) that is supposed to be a lever out of poverty.

inequalities_education_report_1200

POWER, the interfaith organization focused on social justice issues, published a report recently that speaks to the inequitable distribution of wealth by our state’s politicians. They found that “the whitest districts get the biggest windfall of funding above their fair share, districts that have an average proportion of white students get approximately their fair share of funding, and the least white districts are shortchanged (again) the most relative to their fair share.”

When PA’s 500 school districts were broken up into quintiles, the 20% of students in the whitest districts receive $1,934 per student more than their fair share of funding, and the 20% of students in the least white districts receive $1,912 per student less than their fair share.”

If your district is white, expect $2000 more than your fair share, if your district is Black or Brown, expect $2,000 less than your fair share

The darker your district is, the less money per pupil you will receive. When you couple that with the local tax base of communities of color, we earn the distinction of having the widest funding gap in the nation.

Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Lancaster, help is NOT on the way.

If, for some reason, you ever need to predict how much relative money your district will receive from the state, race continues to be the crystal ball. Spoiler alert: there will be no “crystal stairs” at schools that don’t have a substantial white student population.

Your child’s per pupil funding will largely depend on the hue of the students in your district. No surprises there, but when a commission is created to determine equitable funding, you don’t expect them to equitably distribute only about 6% of the pot so brazenly.

I admit, I was naively, albeit, cautiously, optimistic. Shame on me.

State Republicans are quick to denounce anyone who calls them racist, despite the fact that they control the legislature and there is a clear pattern of racist distribution of state education funding.

David Mosenkis (who wrote the POWER report) said, “There are a lot of ways that racism manifests itself in our society,” he said. “And a lot of them are not because individuals are consciously racist, or making decisions to consciously underserve or discriminate against people of color.”

But, once systemic racism is clearly pointed out and you refuse to do anything about it, what are you?

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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