By Sam Bigham and Elizabeth Perry
A report released in October ranks Pennsylvania 49th and 50th in providing average opportunities to Black and Hispanic students according to the group Research for Action.
Opportunity is categorized in their report in part by access to quality educators, a positive school climate, and college and career readiness curriculum.
“White students in Pennsylvania are provided greater access to educational opportunity compared to white students in most states. In contrast, Black and Hispanic students are provided less access,” Carlynton School District Board Member Christine Simcic said during a recent school board meeting.
Unequal access to educational opportunity likely contributes to Pennsylvania’s large achievement gaps, according to the report conducted by Justis Freeman and David Bamat for Research for Action.
“Even within schools with medium or high concentrations of poverty, White students are more likely than Black and Hispanic students to be enrolled in those schools that provide greater access to educational opportunity,” according to the report.
The report goes on to say disparities exist throughout most states, but Pennsylvania's are unique for their “size and pervasiveness,” and are the “most severe in the country."
Pennsylvania ranks 10th in the United States providing educational opportunities for White students, regardless of income.
“No other state in the nation provides such high access to educational opportunity to its White students and students from higher-income families while providing such low access to educational opportunity for its Black and Hispanic students, and students from low-income families,” the report states.
Simcic concluded her report to the Carlynton school directors by saying, “Policymakers and the education community should prioritize closing these gaps, so race and income don’t continue to dictate access to high quality education.”
At the Oct. 20 Sto-Rox School Board meeting, Superintendent Megan Van Fossan said the district had difficulty keeping special education teachers because they weren’t able to offer competitive pay. The financial woes of the district led them to a state takeover in 2022 in which they were placed on an economic recovery plan.
unfair way to
Schools are funded through local property taxes, which creates a vast disparity between rich and poor districts. For instance, in McKees Rocks which sends students to the Sto-Rox School District, the median property value is $30,800 and the annual taxes to the district are about $770 according to numbers provided by Allegheny County.
Sto-Rox Business Manager Paul Sroka said more than 20% of property taxes remain unpaid. In contrast, the median home in Kennedy Township, which supports the Montour School District is $137,900, which would result in an annual tax revenue of about $2,477 per year.
Montour has a lower millage rate than the Sto-Rox School district, at 17.9, whereas Sto-Rox has raised its rate twice in the past few years, to 26.3. This demonstrates why raising taxes isn’t a viable solution to the problem of inequity and the state has not made up the difference.
In fact, according to a 2017 report compiled by the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania sends “proportionally more dollars to wealthier and whiter school districts.”
The wealthiest, top-five school districts in Pennsylvania spend $4,800 more per student than the lowest-wealth districts, according to the 2017 report.
The state updated its funding formula in 2016 to account for factors like student poverty, but according to the report, “the formula is currently only applied to about six percent of the $5.9 billion Pennsylvania spends on public education.”
The Education Law Center report goes on to say; “The formula, developed by the state legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission, only recommended how funding should be distributed, not how much funding is needed to ensure adequacy.
In other words, adoption of the school funding formula did not itself deliver any additional money for schools.”
A program called Level Up, a fair funding formula introduced by Gov. Tom Wolf in 2021, to reduce funding disparities between richer and poorer students has succeeded in moving the needle slightly, pushing Pennsylvania from 47th in state-wide funding to 43rd overall.
Currently, a lawsuit against Wolf, the leaders of the House and Senate, the Secretary of Education and Department of Education and the State Board of Education is awaiting a ruling in Philadelphia courts.
The suit was brought by the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, six school districts and parents from those districts.
Originally filed in 2014, the suit moved through the system for years, and the suit contends that the state’s funding of schools is unconstitutional. Closing arguments took place on July 26 of this year. Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer is likely to decide the case by the end of the year.