Pa.’s public school system doesn’t serve low-income communities | Opinion

By Bishop Dwayne Royster

For decades, we have known that Pennsylvania’s public school funding system does not serve poor children, Black children, and immigrant children, because those children are concentrated in communities that are not wealthy. Low-wealth public schools in Pennsylvania have $4,800 less to spend per student than their wealthy neighbors, while serving students with greater needs. This brand of American injustice has a familiar slant: Districts with the most students of color are the most deeply shortchanged with fault lines of inequity that shock the conscience. 

On February 7, Commonwealth Court affirmed that this system is unjust, that it violates Pennsylvania’s state constitution, and that it must change. The Court acknowledged that some students performed at vastly different rates than others. But it also explained why: that our achievement gaps “demonstrate that the way the system is funded is failing its most vulnerable, traditionally underserved children.”

The findings of the Court were nothing new to parents of Black and Brown children who have lived with these realities for too long. But what was new was a Pennsylvania court ordering legislators that once and for all, the system had to work for all of us. 

And yet, right at the very time that the General Assembly has been ordered to ensure all of us benefit from life-changing public educational opportunities, some in Harrisburg, paired with Pennsylvania’s richest man, have partnered in an attempt to begin undermining the system further, with a school voucher bill euphemistically titled “lifeline scholarships.” They seek to break the public school system, rather than providing quality public schools for all who have long been relegated to a separate, unequal system. This is a movie we have seen before. 

These attempts also ignore reality. For example, a full-page plea in the Philadelphia Inquirer by Jeff and Janine Yass—the same Jeff Yass who may be bankrolling the dark money attacks on opponents of this new voucher program—suggests they seek to benevolently rescue some Philadelphia children from public schools they call “cages.” And in the face of a Court decision that found Philadelphia is a “low-wealth, high-need, high-effort, low-spending district,” with decades of deferred maintenance and insufficient staff, Mr. and Ms. Yass baldly assert that the District has the funding it needs, because private schools will be the answer. 

They will not. Private schools can shut students out for almost any reason. One study found that 10% of students in proposed voucher school districts are learning English, and 19% receive special education. Private schools have no obligation to provide these students with the services they are legally entitled to receive in public schools—and they can and do legally turn them away. They can and do reject students who struggle academically or behaviorally, LGBT students, students who follow the “wrong” religion, and more. In the end, the schools get to choose, not the parents. And they don’t fix the underfunding of public schools; they make it worse

Fundamentally, this voucher program would maintain a two-tiered system. The court’s decision found that the low-performing school districts slotted to be part of this voucher program spend $4,500 less per student on average relative to their students’ needs than well-performing districts. Compared to adequately funded school districts, they serve nearly three times as many economically disadvantaged students and five times as many English learners. They are doing more with less. 

A voucher system would allow wealthy school districts to retain high quality local public schools—free, open to all, and democratically governed. It does nothing to provide that same opportunity to students in the 78 low-wealth districts targeted by the current proposal. Instead, the state would give some families a coupon, subject to conditions, with which they can shop on an unregulated marketplace. 

In a similar piece for Forbes, Jeff Yass describes his end goal—“educational savings accounts” for parents, “fully funded” with all state and local tax dollars currently spent on public education. No state currently lives up to his fantasy system. If he reaches his goal, public schools would quickly face deeply destabilizing deficits (look to Arizona for a preview) and uncertainty, with enormous public subsidies directed towards parents already enrolling their kids in private schools

It’s fitting that the thinker often cited by the Yass family as their inspiration, late economist Milton Friedman, shared this radical vision. “Of course the ideal way would be to abolish the public school system and eliminate all the taxes that pay for it,” Mr. Friedman told a meeting of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in 2006. As one scholar noted, Friedman both opposed what he called Brown’s “forced nonsegregation” of schools, and “saw in the backlash to the desegregation decree an opportunity [he] might leverage to advance [his] goal of privatizing government services and resources.” 

We should not give an inch to this destructive vision for education in Pennsylvania, and we must stand firm for strong public schools in every community. The Commonwealth Court has reminded the legislature that the state’s Constitution sets up one system of public schools, not one system for well off communities and another for the poor.  

Communities of color have long waited for public institutions to work for our communities as much as any other. It is time we live up to that ideal, and for the governor and legislators to respond to the Court’s clarion call to finally fund our public schools with the resources and programs needed so all students have an equal opportunity to succeed.

Bishop Dwayne Royster is executive director of POWER Interfaith.

Originally published at,by Capital-Star Guest Contributor

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