Pennsylvania’s Stubborn and “Savage Inequalities”

“Unless we have the wealth to pay for private education, we are compelled by law to go to public school—and to the public school in our district. Thus the state, by requiring attendance but refusing to require equity, effectively requires inequality. Compulsory inequity, perpetuated by state law, too frequently condemns our children to unequal lives.” ― Kozol

In PA we have an unfunded funding formula. Crazy, right?!

My state makes school funding choices that are not consistent with the Constitution. Pennsylvania now has a funding formula. Finally. However, as crazy as this sounds, it is an almost completely unfunded formula. We have an almost six billion dollar education budget. However, the total budget will not be distributed with the fairer formula that the bi-partisan school funding commission came up with. Instead, only new funding will go through this equity tool. What does that look like? 3% of the total budget (only new money) will be distributed using the fair and weighted formula. Yes, three percent. The equity and justice in our politicians’ decision making continues to be severely lacking.

We are also still very short in providing schools with the “adequate” amount of money necessary to fund our schools. Pennsylvania’s funding of schools is the most inequitable in the United States. That means it is the most oppressive-especially to Black, Brown, and poor people. Years ago, former Philadelphia School Superintendent, David Hornbeck, called Pennsylvania’s general assembly school funding plan “racially discriminatory” because it systematically and deliberately underfunded schools. Not much has changed.

PA Continues to Have the COuntries Most Inequitable School Funding Gap

Earlier this spring, one of my teachers, Zachary Wright, led busloads of seniors to Harrisburg because our students wanted to express their frustrations with the budget process. Mr. Wright’s speech is below.

Talk is cheap, as our state representatives must know, since they have been discussing, and not enacting a budget, for ten months.  And since I do not possess the resources that would allow me to talk endlessly, let’s stick to the facts.

  • Of the fifty states in the nation, only 2 have not passed budgets – Illinois, and Pennsylvania.
  • Of the fifty states in the nation, one state is behind all others in job growth – Pennsylvania.
  • Most states budget a 50% share for education funding, meaning that the state will cover half a city’s cost of educating its children –Pennsylvania covers 35%, among the lowest in the nation.
  • Pennsylvania ranks in the top 7 states for locking up its own citizens behind bars with a prison population of almost 49,000 people, a population larger than the entire city of Harrisburg.

The situation is clear.  Pennsylvania is a state with too few jobs, too many prisoners, impoverished schools, and an intransigent government that refuses to fulfill its obligations to its citizens by passing a budget.

And yet, even when the politicians in Harrisburg come to their collective senses and do the jobs they were elected to do, we will still not have true educational equality. 

In PA, Zip Codes Continue to Determine Your Academic Worth

As it stands, there is one factor that supersedes all others in whether a child will succeed in school; not teachers, not school size, not parents; zip code.  As it stands, in our state of Pennsylvania, a child’s zip code determines whether a school will prepare their students for college, or a jail cell.  A child’s zip code determines whether a school has counselors and nurses.  A child’s zip code, 5 numbers, sets the trajectory for a child’s entire life.

How is this possible?  Through the link of property taxes to school funding.

A district with high property taxes, Lower Merion for instance, receives vastly more tax revenue for its schools than those in Philadelphia.  One student on 53rd street and Lancaster Avenue in West Philadelphia is allotted $8,000 for her education.  A 10 minute drive away, past City Line Avenue, that same student would have $21,000.  And why?  Zip Codes.

As Americans, we love to believe in our exceptionalism.  We love to believe that here, in this land, anybody can make it, anybody can become successful.  The American Dream is hardwired into our DNA.

But not here.  Not in Pennsylvania.  Not when politicians cannot, or rather will not, do their jobs and fund our schools.  Not when a young person’s future is determined by their zip code rather than their grit.  Here, the rich get corridors to colleges, and the poor get pipelines to prisons.

We are here to send a clear message.

Fund our schools, not our prisons.

Dress our young people in graduation gowns, not orange jump suits.

Harrisburg, do your job, or we will elect those who will.

“Equity, after all, does not mean simply equal funding. Equal funding for unequal needs is not equality.”  –Kozol


Sharif El-Mekki
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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