In Northeast Philly, they are fighting for fair funding
School funding in Pennsylvania is not an urban problem, a rural problem, or any single school district’s problem. It’s the problem, and responsibility, of all citizens in the state, whether they live in the state’s richest or poorest school district.
This has been the ambitious message of the advocacy organization Good Schools Pennsylvania since its founding in 2001 by a statewide group of religious and education leaders, including former District Superintendent David Hornbeck.
Since then, Good Schools has brought people together from across Pennsylvania to show state lawmakers that providing every child’s school with fair and adequate funding is the concern of thousands of Pennsylvania residents from all corners of the state.
Even within Philadelphia’s city limits, Good Schools has worked to cross perceived dividing lines to make school funding equity a priority for all.
From the beginning, the group has targeted Northeast Philadelphia as one of its key areas for organizing residents.
"We were trying to mobilize people in places where there were key members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly who we thought could be moved," explained spokesperson Janis Risch. "So our interest in the Northeast was that [John] Perzel was there and at the time he was the House majority leader."
With some neighborhoods in the Northeast being among the most conservative in the city, it would be easy to write off the area as the last place to build a movement for equity in school funding.
"It’s the toughest nut to crack," said Lois Yampolsky, a longtime activist who works and lives in the Northeast and has been involved with Good Schools.
Yampolsky is quick to note that many schools in the Northeast face the same problems as those throughout the city – all of Philadelphia schools are funded through the same system, after all.
But she also acknowledged that it can be hard to rally citizens for public school funding in the Northeast, especially in areas where private donations have allowed public schools to maintain some level of educational and extracurricular programming despite budget cuts, and where there are large numbers of families who have opted out of the public school system.
Good Schools Philadelphia field organizer Marvetta Coleman said that the group has been able to gain a foothold in the Northeast because residents have understood how unfair funding systems impact the entire city.
"The reality is that we’re all linked," she explained. "And if we aren’t working collectively, it is not going to do us any good to have individual successes."
Donna Konrad, who has lived and worked in the Northeast most of her life, described having a revelation of those linkages among communities because of her involvement with Good Schools.
"When I first realized the inadequacies of how the money is given to each area, I was totally amazed," she said.
Konrad has worked as a volunteer with Good Schools PA since its beginning through her role as the social action coordinator for the local branch of United Methodist Women. She said that in the past few years Good Schools has contributed to an increased understanding of school funding inequities among Northeast residents, as it did for her.
"A lot of churches have gotten involved [and] it has really started making people more aware," she observed. "You see more [about school funding] in the local papers, more people talking about it at churches."
"Before Good Schools, there were certainly other parent groups and other groups trying to make their concerns known," said Reverend Stanley Krall, pastor at Fox Chase United Methodist Church, who led a "Group of 10" study group, part of Good Schools’s education and organizing strategy. "But Good Schools was able to get a significant amount of resources and staff and become a real political and organizational force."
Krall said that the push for school funding equity has lost some of its intensity since the prolonged education budget battle of 2003. That push resulted in some new dollars for Pennsylvania school districts, but the outcome was a far cry from the promises for comprehensive funding reform that Governor Ed Rendell campaigned on.
But Konrad said that Good Schools’ presence helps to keep her focused on the issue, and that will have an impact on politicians who have the power to ensure all Pennsylvania school districts are fairly funded.
"They know that we’re going to be up in Harrisburg, they know we’re not going to shut up, they know that people are committed to it," she said.
A personal note: This is the last Neighborhood Notebook I will write as the Notebook’s Community Outreach Coordinator. This summer, I will be leaving the Notebook’s staff to pursue teacher certification and a graduate degree in Education at the University of Pennsylvania.
Working at the Notebook has been a true honor and pleasure, in large part because of all of the generous, kind, and impressive people I have met in neighborhoods across Philadelphia who are working to improve our schools and the opportunities of students within them. You are an inspiration to me, which I know will continue to uplift me as I embark on my first years of teaching and beyond. Thank you for all that you do!