(The Center Square) – While the landmark case brought against Pennsylvania’s legislators demonstrated unconstitutional inadequacy across demographic lines in both rural and urban districts, testifiers before the Pennsylvania Basic Education Funding Commission have turned the spotlight toward massive racial inequality over the past several weeks.
“Whether because of neglect or malice, the state legislature’s failure to enact equitable funding has and continues to perpetuate racial inequality in Pennsylvania,” said Reverend Dr. Gregory J. Edwards, chief of staff for Power Interfaith, during a recent hearing.
In testimony presented to the commission, Lancaster and David Lapp, director of policy research for Research for Action, said although Pennsylvania ranks 17th overall in average opportunity access, the state is the “worst in the nation in terms of gaps in access to educational opportunity between our white students and students of color.”
According to Matthew Kelly, a school funding scholar from Penn State who testified in front of the board in Allentown last month, 43% of Black and Latino students are enrolled in the poorest districts in the commonwealth, where 65% of students are also low-income. That’s compared to 13% in the wealthiest, where low-income students account for 26% of the population.
These numbers reflect a great deal more than the home environments of the students, advocates say. Low-income areas struggle to generate funding from local property tax, which makes up 55% of school funding within the state. When districts are comprised of primarily tax-exempt properties and residents who cannot afford to bear the weight of additional taxes, options are limited.
Lower funds mean fewer qualified teachers. In the midst of the teacher shortage, “underfunded districts are fighting a losing battle, unable to offer competitive salaries,” said Kristen Haase, English teacher and senior policy fellow with Teach Plus, who testified in Lancaster where almost 25% of the teaching staff has less than three years of experience.
Lapp cited the Pennsylvania Department of Education, who found “students from low-wealth districts — particularly students of color in those districts — are nearly twice as likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers or by ‘out of field’ teachers, who lack training in the grade or subject they’re teaching.”
For many educators and policy advocates, the math is simple. Increased funding means more seasoned teachers with higher salaries and acceptable working conditions, which leads to higher student performance.
“When schools are adequately funded, they can attract and retain highly qualified teachers, provide up-to-date resources and materials, and offer a wide range of extracurricular activities,” said Dr. Tony Watlington, superintendent of Philadelphia Schools, the largest district in Pennsylvania and the eighth largest in the nation.
Only 22% of Black, Latino, and low-income graduates of public schools will go on to earn post-secondary degrees. As troubling, advocates say, over 100,000 students of color are attending schools with exclusively white teachers. In the 2022-2023 school year, 46% of the commonwealth’s schools did not employ any teachers of color.
Marc Stier, executive director of the Pennsylvania Policy Center, has been among those emphasizing that student performance is directly influenced by funding, across demographics. The numbers bear out that regardless of race or gender, when investments are made in students, performance outcomes improve, he said.
This sentiment is in direct opposition to questions asked by John Krill, lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, who notoriously asked, “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” during the funding trial.
“Across geography, race, and class, there are more commonalities than differences in what parents and students want from their public schools,” Stier said. “But we know that while brilliance, talent, and potential are equally distributed across the commonwealth, educational resources are not.”