This American Life produced a show that reflected what low-income Black and Brown kids know and see consistently: There is a huge divide between the levels of education they receive and what the wealthy receive. While it is from 2015, I recently listened to it again as I prepared to meet with some community members to discuss how schools are funded in Pennsylvania.
Here’s a description of the episode:
There’s a program that brings together kids from two schools. One school is public and in the country’s poorest congressional district. The other is private and costs $43,000/year. They are three miles apart. The hope is that kids connect, but some of the public school kids just can’t get over the divide. We hear what happens when you get to see the other side and it looks a lot better.
But, it gets much, much worse. It is one (problematic) thing for a private school to widen the gaps between the poor and rich, it is another thing entirely for two public schools to have differences that would remind you of the yawning gaps between poor public schools and the country’s most elite private schools.
When State Senator Vincent Hughes took people on a tour of my alma mater, Overbrook High School (mostly Black students), and, Upper Dublin, a school in one of the wealthier (mostly White students) school districts in Pennsylvania, some were shocked. But Black folks weren’t.
Both of these schools, while 15 miles apart, are located in State Senator Vincent Hughes’ district. It speaks to the gross inequities in Pennsylvania’s school funding system and in politicians’ and citizens’ thinking about equity and justice.
Let’s just highlight the insane differences in structural quality of the two schools.
Upper Dublin’s new high school, finished in 2012, features an 18-lane swimming pool with two spring-diving boards and a movable bulkhead that allows the pool to be reconfigured for swim meets and water polo matches. The natatorium has its own air-filtration system so the smell of chlorine doesn’t seep into the surrounding hallways or waft into the facility’s entryway, with its tasteful mosaic.
At Overbrook — built in the 1920s — there is no pool. The comprehensive high school in West Philadelphia does have water, but it also has water problems. Testing recently revealed six outlets with lead levels above the School District’s safety threshold. A drainage problem in an abandoned room is delaying principal Yvette Jackson’s plan to convert the room into a badly needed science lab. The space fell into disrepair because budget cuts lowered the number of science teachers at Overbrook — and thus the number of science labs it could regularly use.
Nobody is more aware of the differences between schools in the same state as our student-athletes who get to visit schools around the state and return home to share with their peers the distinct and clear understanding of who is prioritized in Pennsylvania.
And the differences aren’t just structural, you can read more about this funding issue here.
If you’ve been keeping up with Pennsylvania’s consistent and concerted efforts to maintain structural inequity in our school funding plans, you know that only six percent of the total state budget allocated for schools is distributed equitably.
Way to go, PA!
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.