June 22 — 9:50 am, 2020

POWER: State education funding is a textbook example of structural racism

A member of the interfaith grassroots organization expresses support for Philadelphia Student Union's calls to redirect resources from security to support.

Roseann Liu

protest Photo: Harvey Finkle

The Philadelphia Student Union (PSU), a youth organizing group, recently circulated an online petition to demand the removal of all police from Philadelphia schools. In less than 24 hours, the petition gathered close to 2,500 signatures, and today it’s approaching the 13,000-signature mark.

Like many movements to end state violence against Black people, calls to defund the police are not just about what we don’t want. They are also about building the kind of world we want to live in. Patrisse Cullors, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Global Network, told WBUR in Boston: “It’s not just about taking away money from the police; it’s about reinvesting those dollars into Black communities.”

The School District of Philadelphia (SDP) spends $31 million on its security force — money that PSU wants to put toward training community members in “de-escalation, restorative justice, and other skills that support healthy schools and communities” for an Office of School Safety, the petition says.

At a time when SDP’s budget has been decimated by the coronavirus pandemic, with an expected shortfall of at least $800 million over the next five years, PSU’s youth-led campaign offers an important model for investing in the kind of high-quality education Philadelphia students need and deserve.

But to ensure a serious and sustained investment in Philadelphia schools, we must also pressure state legislators to restructure the way school districts are funded in Pennsylvania. Doing so would give Philadelphia students $400 million more every year.

In 2016, the state legislature adopted a fair funding formula that distributes more money to students and districts that have greater needs. However, state legislators decided that only new money — increases to the state basic education funding line item — would be routed through the formula. In effect, only 10% of the state education budget is distributed through the fair funding formula.

An interfaith grassroots organization that I belong to called POWER has highlighted, particularly in its 2016 study, how Pennsylvania’s state education funding is a textbook example of structural racism: The whiter the school district, the more state funding it receives relative to its fair share. The more Black and Brown students in a school district, the less state funding that district receives relative to its fair share, when controlled for poverty and other factors.

SDP, with a white student population of only 14%, is receiving $400 million less than it would if all state education dollars were run through the fair funding formula. POWER’s campaign puts pressure on state legislators to support House Bill 961, which proposes putting 100% of state education money through the formula.

The school-funding gap between rich and poor districts in Pennsylvania is one of the largest in the nation. And local sources of education revenue also contribute to the state’s school funding inequities. Residents within the William Penn School District’s boundaries have a local property tax rate twice as high as the rate in nearby Radnor. Despite this, William Penn only yields $7,826 per student, compared to $19,418 per student that Radnor residents raise from local revenues.

Such disparities led the William Penn School District to become the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state that alleges it has failed to provide a sound and basic education to all Pennsylvania children, which they are entitled to under the state constitution. The lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in winter 2021.

As the movement for Black lives has generated more public support, the momentum cannot stop with calls to remove police from schools. Leaders and allies must also work toward investing in healthy schools and communities by supporting the William Penn lawsuit and campaigns to create a racially equitable school-funding structure. As PSU’s youth-led campaign states: “This is not the end of the world, but the start of a new one.”

Roseann Liu is a member of POWER, a Philadelphia public school parent, and a faculty member at Swarthmore College. She is writing a book about school funding.

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