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At Last! Pennsylvania’s Disparate Funding Challenged In Court

Yesterday’s Channel 6 newscast featured a story on the State Supreme Court’s hearing today on the funding equity lawsuit between the William Penn School District and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. From my perspective, this case is forty years late!

Some background:

As a part-time graduate student in 1971 I wrote a paper for a School Law course on the effects of exclusionary zoning on school funding. The conclusion was that suburban school districts who had zoning ordinances that required larger house lots effectively excluded low income housing which in turn drove up the cost of homes which in turn expanded the real estate tax base which in turn enabled those districts to spend more. The whole situation was exacerbated by the way State funds were distributed at that time.

As a graduate fellow a year later I worked in Springfield (Montgomery County), one of the most affluent suburban districts in the Philadelphia region as an intern. The assignment was eye opening after working for two years as a middle school math teacher in Philadelphia, which this district bordered. The 1930s vintage junior high I taught in had 3000 students on a split shift in my first year and over 1600 the second year. Class sizes ranged from 32-36 and the halls were thick with students when classes changed. In Springfield, which bordered Philadelphia on the Northwest, the junior high was built in the 1960s and had no more than 28 students in a class. The halls were spacious as were the athletic fields that surrounded the building, a marked contrast to the asphalt that served as a de facto moat around the fortress-like building in Philadelphia. While the school board in the affluent district worked diligently to contain spending in Springfield, they did so without giving ANY consideration to expanding class sizes to those encountered a mile away in Philadelphia. And while some of my colleagues thought that unions were the problem in Philadelphia, they were reaching agreements with the local unions that resulted in total compensation for their teachers that matched Philadelphia’s.

In 1975 after concluding my fellowship program at Penn, I began my administrative career at William Penn, a recently merged blue collar and racially diverse school district that bordered Philadelphia on the Southwest. The school facilities were superior to Philadelphia but no where close to those in the affluent district, and the housing stock in the district where I worked was more like Philadelphia than Springfield: row houses; duplexes; and single dwellings with postage sized lots. The tax base was marginally better than Philadelphia, but the class sizes at the High School where I worked were larger than those in Springfield and the array of courses was much more limited. Because the district had just merged there was a belief that over the course of time the salaries for teachers and the opportunities for students would both increase since one of the districts in the merger had more resources. As time went on, however, the school board members represented those parents who sent their children to private and parochial schools and those taxpayers who did not have children in school. The result was suppressed spending on public schools. As a result, William Penn is one of many PA schools who suffer underfunding as a result of a State formula that starves public education and state spending that does not compensate for the inherent inequities that result when districts rely on local property taxes.

Forty years ago the students I taught in Philadelphia and worked with at William Penn suffered from the State’s inequitable funding formulas. Today, their grandchildren are saddled with the same disadvantages. the State Supreme Court will hear a case that will determine if future generations will continue to face an uphill battle as they strive to move ahead.

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