It took eight years, but the courts have now ruled: Pennsylvania’s patently inequitable state education funding system, indeed among the least equitable funding systems in the nation, is unconstitutional.
Better late than never, right?
Too many of our communities–low-income black and Brown communities, rural communities, low-income suburban communities–are living with the fallout of generations of this inequity. From lower graduation rates and diminished career prospects, economic insecurity, and public safety challenges, the way we have funded schools in the Keystone state has constructed an architecture of haves and have-nots, of a fundamental injustice for far too many children, families, schools and neighborhoods.
But all that will change, right?
Here again, without additional interventions and systemic transformations, the answer will continue to be, “Unfortunately, no.”
Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s ruling is a sweeping and stinging indictment of the way that the state allocates financial support to our schools.
“It is evident to the Court that the current system of funding public education has disproportionately, negatively impacted students who attend schools in low-wealth school districts,” she wrote in the 786-page decision.
“The consistency of [achievement] gaps over the variety of inputs and outputs leads to the inescapable conclusion that these students are not receiving a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.”
In ruling this way, Judge Jubelirer makes a critical observation that shows us both the desperate need to create a just and equitable state funding scheme, but also how much more must be done to ensure that, as Governor Josh Shapiro put it in his statement on the ruling, “every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment, regardless of their zip code.”
To achieve that vision of universal access to high-quality schools and safe learning environments, we’ll need a comprehensive overhaul of all parts of our education system: from teacher preparation, recruitment and development to how we staff our schools with those educators. The organization I lead, the Center for Black Educator Development, is working to equip educators with the skills and cultural understanding they need to teach all children well. Despite our growth, our own reach is finite. In a state where more than 6 in 10 teachers say they are not prepared to lead classrooms with students from diverse backgrounds, we’ll need a ten or hundredfold increase in our scale to reach the more than 108,000 educators serving our state’s 1.73 million schoolchildren.
We’ll also need to look at how we develop a curriculum that both inspires and equips students with the skills, competencies, and personal agency to succeed in a fast-changing world of work. And we’ll need to develop the learning environments that all learners need to succeed, that gets all students to a place well beyond proficiency, that supports their aspirations and exposes them to potential careers early, so they have the understanding and pathway to pursue their passions and personal and professional ambitions, be it through a four-year-degree, industry recognized certification, or other pathway to personal fulfillment.
But that’s a long way off if we’re just going to consider the job done by reworking the state funding formula. That’s like saying that we filled the gas tank of a broken down car, so it now ought to be able to run a race against well-oiled high-performance vehicles. The fuel, the funding, is just a part, albeit an integral one, of the equation.
Yes, we need more equitable, sustainable, and predictable funding, especially for schools serving students with greater needs, which Judge Jubelirer rightly noted are most often in our lower-income communities. But the court’s ruling does not totally absolve us from interrogating and restructuring the rest of the dysfunctional system, the rest of the unjust architecture that keeps too many Black, Brown and low-income students in an endless cycle of low expectations and diminished futures.
This ruling is a resounding victory for good sense, reason, and the further pursuit of educational justice for all of our learners.
But it is merely the start of what must be an expansive and comprehensive transformation of the whole of our state’s system of public education.
This blog was originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer.