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School Funding Inequity Forces Poor Cities Like Reading, Pa., To Take Huge Cuts

Posted: Updated: 10/05/2012 1:48 pm EDT


Reading's problems only worsen in the upper grades, according to students. "For the most part, we're doing fine in elementary, fine in middle, but there's something within eighth and ninth [grade] that's broken and we're not seeing what that is," says Joseph, the recent graduate. While many students make it to high school, between 40 and 50 percent don't graduate on time.

Sarah Velez just began her senior year as one of Reading High School's nearly 3,000 students, but she didn't start there. She's from Brooklyn, N.Y., originally, and the flaws of her new school system haven't escaped her. "When I came here, I noticed differences," she says. "They were less focused on our goals. They don't have expectations for us."

Sarah discusses this seated at a dining room table with her best friend, Reading native Elizabeth Thomas. They're in Elizabeth's godfather's house, where Elizabeth recently moved after her mother lost their apartment. The best friends have something most Reading students don't: parents who know what it's like to live outside that city. Sarah's father served in the military, and her mother is a crossing guard. Elizabeth's mother recently lost her job at a Turkey Hill gas station because of an injury, and Elizabeth grew up knowing she "didn't want to end up working at McDonald's." They believe kids in Reading with similar values stick together, either on the streets or off. They belong to the latter crowd. In their free time, "we hang out and play Monopoly," Sarah says.

During the school day, students playing hooky hang out at the gas station across the street, from morning to afternoon. "The schools could be doing more," Sarah says. "They don't do anything if you don't come." When the high school doesn't have students' schedules ready -- and, Elizabeth says, it often doesn't -- kids just sit around in the auditorium all day.

"I see these people walk right out the front door," Elizabeth says.

Sarah says that kids are friendly with the security guards, "very few of [whom] do their job." Their job is, among other things, to keep the children in school during class time.

Reading High School is also known as "The Castle on the Hill."

But teachers believe that the mere presence of the guards at least curbs violence and crime. Russell Diesinger has been teaching criminal justice and history at the high school for 12 years, and he says not a day goes by when he doesn't see "a black limousine with New York tags" loitering outside the school, with a driver looking to sell drugs.

"For the kids here, education is hope," Diesinger says, sitting at his classroom desk. "It's the way to beat the poverty cycle." He pauses. "Two dozen kids make it out every year. They deal with more problems at 17 than I've ever had." He says he routinely invites students to sleep at his house so that they don't have to sleep in the park.

He recalls one student who had to fend for himself after his mother moved to Delaware to be with her boyfriend. Diesinger, who is now running for state representative, tells the story as he makes the case against austerity in schools. He says the boy's mother left no way to trace her, not even a phone number. He remembers a phone call from the student, saying he'd come home from school to find his mother's house, where he was living by himself, boarded up. "Do you think I should break in?" the student asked. Diesinger eventually tracked down the student's father, who has since moved in with his son. "That's the environment these kids are living in," says Diesinger.

Veronica Cambria, Reading High School's Latin teacher, thinks that the problems aren't limited to the home and that teachers owe it to students to focus more on them. "It's all in the hands of teachers -- you can do miracles," she says. "People always ask me, 'You're teaching Latin to those kids? To kids in Reading?' It's possible to turn things around. You just have to want to."

But it's hard to do that when the district is in chaos. In the weeks leading up to the start of the school year, schedules weren't set. As the district called teachers back from furlough, confusion over who was teaching what made it near impossible to plan lessons. There was a sense among parents and teachers that the Reading Education Association was holding things together, with Sanguinito fielding calls for days, helping to set things straight. "I believe that God put me here at this time to be able to help," he says.

On the first day back to Reading High School, the 10th-graders didn't have their schedules. So in the early afternoon, they roamed the building's labyrinthine halls, wondering where exactly their next classes were. Within the span of three minutes, five students stopped Diesinger, asking him to help them figure out where to go. They were already late to class.

At least 100 students crowded in the first-floor hall, waiting to find their class assignments. The principal was nowhere to be seen. A few teachers stood in the hallway amid the chaos, scolding some students. When one saw a girl wearing a mostly see-through shirt walk by with a huddle of friends, he said, "You have a hole in your shirt." She turned around, flashed him a thumbs-up, and just continued walking.

On the second floor, austerity's sting was also visible. There were no security guards in view, and kids were loitering. In one corner, a student with low-slung pants stood atop an otherwise unoccupied red podium marked "Reading High School Security." He looked down at his friends, smirking.

"We're like a deer in headlights -- nobody knows what's going on," said Jim Wright, a world studies teacher, as he took in the scene around him. "Everyone is confused."

Two weeks later, on Sept. 12, the impact of weak security and overburdened classrooms became very real. At the city's intermediate high school, the Citadel, a major fight broke out when students brawled over a cafeteria seat, leaving two kids injured and one in handcuffs charged with rioting and disorderly conduct. Five more students received misdemeanor charges. The next day, police handed out three more citations.

And so begins the school year in one of America's poorest cities. Largely because of the inequities that come with funding schools based on local property taxes, there's little order, not enough money and more cuts on the horizon. The Reading School District is reaching the limit on the amount of debt it can accrue as it struggles to get its finances in shape.

A broad solution has been proposed, but even its developer calls it "a radical idea." Cynthia Brown, who leads education policy at the Center for American Progress, envisions a system that moves school entirely funding to the state level. States would dole out school money based on student need, a process that would be fairer, she says, since it would be blind to the financial differences between poor cities and affluent suburbs.

School funding has begun to move that way, but not enough, experts say. A slew of lawsuits in the 1980's and 1990's caused states to increase their share in funding education, and now school districts across the country have three main revenue streams: local, state and federal funding. But property taxes still affect school funding. In 2011, school districts across Pennsylvania on average funded their schools with 34.1 percent of their money from the state and 8.57 percent from federal sources; 56.09 percent of the money was locally funded.

The state contributed a higher proportion of money to poor districts like Reading. That year, Reading received 64.48 percent of its education budget from the state, 19.50 percent from federal sources and 14.72 percent from local sources. But experts say moving funding entirely to the state level would give the state more money to help level the playing field. In states have taken steps to fix the situation, in some cases, they haven't accurately accounted for the greater needs of poor districts when compared to affluent districts with larger tax bases. For example, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress, about 20 school districts in Pennsylvania unnecessarily receive $712 extra per student in state funds, money that "could be allocated to higher-need districts."

Canada uses a system like the one Brown proposes to finance its schools, and Canadian students perform better than their U.S. counterparts: In the most recent administration of the Programme for International Student Assessment math exam, Canada came in at 10th place, and the United States ranked 25th. But the last time state-level school funding came up for consideration in the U.S., the year was 1972 and it was the product of a committee cobbled together by President Richard Nixon. "Watergate came shortly thereafter," Brown says.

She plans to release a paper on the topic in December, and she's not sure what reaction to expect. "It's politically very difficult, but I think we'll work that way over the next 10 years," Brown says. "We need to get over treating [high-needs children] poorly or we're going to have an unprepared workforce."

For now, Reading struggles. Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett (R) offered a budget last year that cut education funding, saying his cuts would "sort the must-haves from the nice-to-haves." Democrats altered its terms so that education funding merely flatlined, preventing deeper harm to the state's schools. But the residents of Reading expect even worse cuts next year, and attempts to engage the state are so far going nowhere.

"I wish the governor would return my calls," Mayor Spencer says.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article did not correctly state how public schools in Pennsylvania are funded. Over the last few decades, Pennsylvania has significantly increased the state's contribution to education in poor districts like Reading. Federal contributions have also increased to local schools in Reading and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. The story incorrectly asserted that Reading relied primarily on local property taxes to fund its school district. In 2010-2011, Reading received 64.48 percent of its education budget from the state, 19.50 percent from federal sources and 14.72 percent from local sources. By comparison, school districts across Pennsylvania on average funded their schools with 34.1 percent of their money from the state and 8.57 percent from federal sources; 56.09 percent of the money was locally funded.