How Low Will They Go?

Marc Stier |

The majority of Pennsylvanians believe that every child in Pennsylvania deserves a high quality education. We believe that the best education for everyone is central to creating economic opportunity for individuals. And we believe that economic growth is only possible with a highly educated work force. And we know both of these aims can only be attained if we provide adequate and equitable funding to each of our schools.

So when legislators or advocates on the right challenge the demand for adequate and equatibale funding we sometimes find it hard to understand what they want. How little funding are they prepared to give students in poor communities Pennsylvania before they will say it’s too low? How low will they go?

A recent op-ed by the Commonwealth Foundation gives us the beginning of an answer. And it’s extremely disturbing.

To judge by this piece, the opponents of increased funding for public education are OK with the schools attended by children in our poorest communities getting the level of funding per student, $9,387 found in schools attended by the children in the poorest communities in the average state. This places us just a bit below West Virginia, which spends $9,571 per student.

That may seem OK. We’re average. What’s wrong with that?

But go back and think about it. Opponents of increased education funding are saying, first, that it’s OK to have our extraordinary levels of intra-state inequality between poor and rich schools in Pennsylvania. The schools attended by kids in our poorest communities spend $9,387 per student while the schools attended by kids in our richest communities spend 33% more or $12,529.

Or, in other words, they are saying kids who live in poor school districts in Pennsylvania don’t deserve the same kind of education as kids in rich school districts.

Opponents of increased funding say this intra-state inequality is OK because kids in our poorest communities attend schools where the level of funding per student is about equal to the average found in schools in low income communities across America. As long as we are average, they are not troubled that the schools attended by the kids in low income communities in Massachusetts spend 46% more than we do or that those in New Jersey spend 82% more.

Students in Massachusetts and New Jersey do better on standardized tests than those in Pennsylvania. And one reason may be that in both states schools spend more in low-income communities, where students need more help, than they do in high-income communities, not drastically less as we do in Pennsylvania.

The fundamental unfairness in how we fund education is obvious. It’s wrong for kids who live in poor communities in Pennsylvania to get a second- or third-class education compared to those who live in rich communities here and poor and rich communities alike in nearby states.

Schools as good as the schools in the average poor community in America are not good enough for any of Pennsylvania’s children. And it is, frankly, morally reprehensible to say that it is.

Do we want kids in our low-income communities to have the kinds of opportunities and aspirations found in the worst schools in a state like West Virginia, or do we want them to have the opportunities found in the best schools in the states to which we usually compare ourselves? The answer is obvious. We want to give all of our children a top-notch education. We want them to have them the opportunity to make the best use of their talents—to go to a good college, secure a good job, and become active participants in the life of their community.

We should want this no matter where we live or whether we have children in school or not. All of us should want children in every Pennsylvania community, including low income ones, to get a first rate education. Those low income communities are everywhere in Pennsylvania, not just in our big cities, but in rural areas as well. It’s not just the children in low income communities who suffer when we don’t offer them a first rate education. If we want the businesses that pay the highest wages in Pennsylvania, we need to provide them with an educated work force. Our economy needs the talents of every child, no matter whether they grow up in a poor or rich community.

Pennsylvania’s inadequate support of education doesn’t just hurt children in low income communities. Interstate inequality in school funding in middle and high income communities is also high. The schools attended by children in our middle income communities are outspent by schools in middle income communities in Massachusetts by 14% and New Jersey by 35%. And even in the highest income communities, interstate inequality is evident. New Jersey spends 25% more than we do in those schools.

But it is in our low income communities that the brutal burden of the severe inequalities that afflict education in Pennsylvania are greatest. No decent, civilized state should allow those inequalities to persist. And it is truly disturbing that people who speak out on public policy are ready to sink so low as to defend this stark and appalling inequality in how we educate our children.