The American ethos is built around the idea that anyone can achieve success. For that to be the case, students must have access to the best possible public education regardless of where they live.
Pennsylvania has fallen short of that goal, as have many other states. A big part of the problem is the tremendous difference in circumstances from one school district to the next.
Many communities are filled with economically stable families and have strong tax bases to fund robust school systems. But others, some of them right next door to more affluent communities, have large populations of students who need plenty of help, and not just in the classroom. Typically these poorer districts lack the sort of financial resources that would better enable them to overcome these challenges. A look at Reading and its immediate neighbors offers a clear illustration of the problem.
In Reading, about a third of school-aged children are living in poverty. But just up Route 183 in the neighboring Schuylkill Valley School District, fewer than 7 out of every 100 school-aged children are living in poverty, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s the worst such disparity in Berks County. The comparison isn’t much better with other districts that border Reading. The city has more than double the child poverty rate of the Wilson, Wyomissing, Gov. Mifflin, Antietam and Muhlenberg districts.
Here in Delaware County, the situation became so lopsided a family in the William Penn School District went to court to challenge the state’s education funding formula in hopes of creating a more fair, balanced playing field. The case is due in court later this year.
William Penn has become something of the poster child for education funding problems, where a decaying economic base means tax hikes do not raise the same kind of revenue as nearby districts with much healthier economies.
There are ways to tackle this difficult problem. One is to make up for the inequities by ensuring they are taken into account when the state distributes money to school districts.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s fair funding formula, introduced about five years ago, has made a difference. It takes the poverty level and tax base of districts into consideration when doling out state funds. But because it’s only used for state money added to the pot after 2015, the formula is likely to take decades to level the playing field. Considering the severity of the situation, we don’t have that much time.
There may yet be further improvements to the funding formula, and any attempt at eliminating or reducing the use of property taxes to fund schools will have to address this side of the issue. If the state takes on a larger role in distributing education funds, it’s imperative that the system be made more fair.
Beyond that, the options become much more difficult to achieve due to political realities. We would love to see the state rethink the way district lines are drawn across the commonwealth. Pennsylvania has a whopping 500 school districts, including 15 in Delaware County. There should be fewer districts, which would save on administrative costs and ensure more efficient use of educational resources. In the process, districts should be drawn to eliminate the economic segregation in place now.
Having said that, it’s hard for us to imagine how this could be accomplished. Parochial thinking and a desire for local control make it difficult to even consider any changes to district maps. People in Berks no doubt remember the 2014 merger talks between the Exeter and Antietam school districts. Angry Exeter residents made sure this sensible idea was derailed before there was an opportunity to discuss the details. It’s a sure bet that any other attempts at consolidation in Pennsylvania would be greeted with the same sort of hostility.
It’s frustrating. Pennsylvania’s school districts are based in large part on municipal lines that were drawn decades or even centuries ago. The reasoning behind them is largely lost in the mists of time, but to many these borders are sacrosanct. Even communities that might benefit from change are likely to resist it for reasons that have little to do with education. Sports is the first thing that comes to mind.
Circumstances may yet force Pennsylvanians to grapple with these difficult issues. It would be best for the state’s leaders to get to work on ensuring that every child in the commonwealth has equal access to a good public education.
- ‘No one to help me’: Special education families struggle with coronavirus school closures – USA TODAY
- Jefferson City Board of Education hold first virtual meeting – Jefferson City News Tribune
- Smethport Area School District introduces education plan, notes firm end of year date – Bradford Era
- Navigating Education at Home – Spectrum News
- Special education inconsistent in California school districts during closures – EdSource
- EDUCATION FOR WHAT? | The Crusader Newspaper Group – The Chicago Cusader
- Hernando schools await governor’s decision on technical education building – Tampa Bay Times
- Police plan education, measured enforcement of statewide stay-at-home order – Press Herald
- Secretary DeVos Announces New Federal Deadline Flexibility for Career and Technical Education Leaders, Allowing Them to Focus on Serving Students During the COVID-19 Outbreak – U.S. Department of Education