By Editorial Board
Every year some school districts thrive in Pennsylvania, and every year other districts hang on by a thread. One of the main causes of this is the state’s archaic fend-for-yourself funding, wherein local property tax receipts fund a major portion of each school’s budget.
If a child is born into a family where million-dollar homes pepper the landscape, and fresh new plazas arise from the landscape with trendy, high-dollar stores, that child already has a long leg up on a child born into a poor district with corner stores and empty storefronts.
It’s simple math.
Big money properties bring in big tax dollars, which provide the schools with a perpetual endowment of financial options and a nice cache of emergency money for the unexpected.
Abandoned houses, low assessment values, and desperate deals to attract any productive business at all combine to leave poor schools low on funds, high on complaints about the system… and bereft of options.
They don’t have to remain so. The archaic system doesn’t change because there’s no incentive to change it for the politicians. There aren’t many political donors sending big dollars an elected official’s way from impoverished communities, but there are plenty of them in high-dollar areas that don’t care to see money taken from their tax dollars to go into a common education pool that benefits everyone.
Suggest doing that, and a politician’s phone will blow up with complaints and reminders about who paid for the last election.
That works because, although it costs society to have undereducated children, it doesn’t immediately impact those wealthier areas.
A coalition of poor schools, for this thought exercise, let’s call it the Pennsylvania Coalition of Underfunded Schools (PCUS), formed from schools that educate children in the most impoverished areas across the state, could bring a unified message to state leaders in Harrisburg.
Just a vocal coalition highlighting the disparities with one voice would likely be able to make enough of a ruckus to get some changes enacted, but if not, the hole card that would force Harrisburg’s hand would be to have the PCUS schools agree to a minimum acceptable amount of change to address the issues.
If Harrisburg would still insist that these students remain sentenced to always going without, their schools running up debt, their stressed administrations constantly robbing Peter to pay Paul, then they could decide to pull the plug.
Not a strike, but a closing. Outside of the schools immediately surrounding a district that goes under, there’s not usually much disruption or chagrin. In those nearby school districts, however, the sudden influx of hundreds of students, most of them not well educationally prepared to learn alongside their grade-level peers, there’s a lot of disruption.
At the school level, in the school board meetings, and in the political halls where the suddenly forced benevolence is met with outraged teachers, parents and administrators, those disruptions resonate for years.
Imagine if Sto-Rox - perpetually short of funds and struggling - suddenly closed its doors. The state’s department of education would have hundreds of kids to assign to nearby districts.
With Pittsburgh Public Schools on one side of the district, it’s likely that Montour and/or Cornell would receive the influx. Imagine the possible problems.
Now think about a coalition of schools that are forced to perpetually shortchange their students because of this funding system setting a deadline - say the last day of a school year - at which point they all agree to give up the uphill fight and close their doors.
Looking at numbers across the state, assuming that all such schools would join the coalition, that would leave nearly 30% of the state’s K-12 students without a school district, transferring the funding issue first to Harrisburg… then to nearby districts, as the students are parcelled out and assigned to new districts.
The myriad of problems inherent in such an outcome - from bussing issues to turf wars and the potential tanking of some well-heeled schools’ standardized test scores and district property marketability, among other things - would make such an outcome untenable.
Harrisburg would be forced to address the funding disparities and make the state’s educational system more equitable.
This coalition wouldn’t fix all of the problems impoverished schools face, but it would be a large step in the right direction. It should be done. There’s power in numbers.