The nation’s conscience has awakened in recent weeks to realize that centuries of systemic racism built into criminal justice systems cannot be addressed by simply eliminating a few bad cops, leading many to call for defunding police.
We need a similar awakening to the systemic racism built into our system of public education.
Is it possible that our public school system is steeped in systemic racism? What if you saw clear evidence that Black and Hispanic students overwhelmingly face inferior educational opportunities compared to their white counterparts? What if you found that these educational opportunity gaps reflect how the state funds its public schools? That most school funding in Pennsylvania comes from local property tax revenues that raise far more money for schools in wealthy towns than poorer ones? And that even the money that the state itself kicks in, supposedly intended to bring all districts up to adequate funding levels, is distributed in a way that systematically favors whiter districts over those with more students of color?
Would you remain silent and acquiesce to a system of education apartheid that denies equal educational access? Or would you stand up against a system that is cheating Black and Hispanic students out of the education they deserve?
This is the choice facing Pennsylvania residents today. Quite apart from any individual acts of racial bias that may occur within our school buildings, our public education system is steeped in gaps in educational opportunities and funding that break down starkly along racial lines.
Black students are far less likely to attend schools that offer advanced math and science classes, less likely to be taught by experienced, certified teachers and far more likely to attend schools with high student and teacher absenteeism, high suspension rates and high student/teacher ratios.
These differences are not surprising when you look at how Pennsylvania funds its schools. Most funding comes from local revenues, mostly property taxes, which vary dramatically from one district to another depending on local wealth. Only 35% of Pennsylvania’s public school funding comes from the state, among the lowest percentages in the country. And even those state dollars, which are insufficient to ensure adequate funding levels for all schools, are distributed in a way that systematically favors white students over students of color.
In the 2019-2020 school year, the whitest school districts received on average $2,200 more per student of the state’s Basic Education dollars than the state’s own funding formula says they deserve. And the districts serving the highest proportion of Black and Hispanic students received over $2,200 less per student than the formula recommends.
The School District of Philadelphia, where only 14% of the students are white, received $400 million less than its fair share of state funding this past year.
This disparity is a result of the state Legislature choosing to minimize the use of its own funding formula, which was created in 2015 to match state dollars to the actual needs of each district. Instead of distributing all of the state dollars through the formula, the state this year distributed just 11% using the formula. The other 89% was distributed in an obsolete way that systematically favors whiter students over students of color.
The increased educational privilege that many white students have experienced for decades is locked into place in perpetuity by current Pennsylvania law. The differential treatment that our Black and Hispanic young people experience at the hands of police is sadly mirrored by their treatment as second-class citizens by our public education system.
We have a funding system whose base is local funding that favors wealthier districts over poorer ones, thereby shortchanging most students of color. It then layers on state funding that further favors whiter districts over districts with more Black and Hispanic children.
If we raise our voices to oppose the police treating Black people with undue physical violence, can we stay silent while our public schools impose on Black students the symbolic violence of less opportunity than white students?
If we believe Black students matter, we must rise up and demand that all our students — rich and poor, Black, Hispanic and white — have access to an excellent education. A lawsuit scheduled to go to trial later this year demands that the state ensure such access.
If our state legislators can’t bring themselves to dismantle the systemic racism in our state’s school funding, we the people don’t have to wait for a court order that forces them to do so. We can vote this November to elect legislators who value all Pennsylvania children.
David Mosenkis is chair of POWER Interfaith’s statewide racial justice work on education funding. POWER Interfaith represents more than 65 congregations in Philadelphia, its suburban counties and central Pennsylvania, including Lancaster County.