TWO TRUTHS: We Need Equitable School Funding. More School Funding Alone Won’t Make Our Schools Anti-Racist

The closing arguments in Pennsylvania’s historic school funding lawsuit have been made. 

Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer now must consider the ultimate question of what it means for the Commonwealth to actually live up to its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient system to public education that meets” its needs.

The attorney’s for the Republican legislature who defended the indefensible–the profoundly inequitable existing funding system–would have us believe that all is well in public schools in the state.  Students are getting exactly the kind of education they deserve.

“What use could someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra1?” John Krill, the attorney for state Republicans, asked in court proceedings earlier this year. “There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”

Jaw-dropping, albeit unsurprising, rhetoric aside, we know that state and local leaders of both parties apparently subscribe to this same belief in the fairness of funding inequities.  Why else would Pennsylvania continue to have one of the worst spending gaps between rich and poor school districts?

And while the old adage of “believe people when they tell you who they are” is certainly true with Mr. Krill and several of the state Republicans, I would argue that another quote from James Baldwin is just as pertinent here: “I can’t believe what you say because I see what you do.”

The self-described progressives of our state (and our country, in fact) certainly know how to hum a nice tune about equity and fairness, but too often now and historically that commitment in practice is mostly symbolic and performative. Liberal lip service and sentiment has done precious little in the face of the institutional inequality and racism that pervades how we fund, organize and support public schools in Pennsylvania. 

Progressives won’t call you a second class citizen, yet policies and practices abound that still send that signal. They are either too self-interested or to meek to take on these foundations of inequity. From the fundamental connection between school funding and property taxes/values to the unconscious bias of low expectations that white teachers have for their Black and brown students, the historical failure of white progressives and others who support the lawsuit to actually do anything about all this over the years and decades is on full display in school buildings and classrooms across the Commonwealth.

As Judge Cohn Jubelirer rightly observed in court,

“[j]ust looking at the inputs isn’t going to tell you if the system is meeting its goals.”  Indeed, equitable funding is wholly necessary, but alone insufficient for a just and equitable system of public education. And it’s precisely at that point that even the most earnest sentiments from would-be equity champions simply come up short. 

Calling for an equitable funding formula, even securing one is part of the work required but to actually achieve educational and racial justice, we must interrogate the inequity and bias that is endemic to all of the education system—top to bottom.  How we assign students to schools, how wealth and privilege permit choice for some while others are locked into generational failure, and the scarcity of teachers equipped with the skills, knowledge and cultural understanding to support learning by Black, brown, Indigenous, and low-income students all conspire with inequitable funding systems to hold students and communities of color back. System and school leaders either ignorant or indifferent to the true depths of the problem will only reinforce and magnify these repressive dynamics to the detriment of our children, cities, and state.

What can be done? Amidst the ongoing effort to more equitably fund school systems, we should compliment such top-down efforts with bottom-up work. We should look at how the work in our classrooms themselves, the halls of our very school buildings, are sustaining and reinforcing the inequities that we seek to undo on a broader level. Mindsets matter most and we know that even wealthy districts in tony suburbs have negative mindsets about students and communities of color that they purportedly serve.

That will require a lot more than a professional development day focused on diversity, equity and inclusion for starters.

To be sure, a few hours of professional learning workshops and a book club won’t cut it as research is clear that one-off PD sessions aren’t usually worth the time. Undoing racial and class biases that feed pervasive low expectations will take real change in the organization of our schools and districts and the work of the teachers and leaders in them. We need deep, sustained, ongoing professional learning and coaching that’s culturally informed and based on a solid understanding of how all students learn. It will require creating space and time in the school day and week for feedback loops that include kids, parents, colleagues and supervisors.  And it will mean educators at all levels should be asking everyone they touch the following: “How are you experiencing my leadership?”

An iterative process of uncovering, acknowledging, and unwinding bias and injurious classroom and school-level practices can serve as a continuous improvement cycle that will make a difference for Black, Brown, Indigenous, and low-income students.  Simultaneously restructuring the system-level architecture of public education in our state will mean that we are moving productively towards equity from all levels. 

Students need fair funding and the courts will hopefully see that soon.  In the meantime, we need to take a hard look at the other 90 percent of the system, policies and practices that touch that funding system in our public schools so that all students get something approaching a just and equitable education sooner rather than later. 

The original version of this blog was published in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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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