The Pennsylvania Supreme Court sat in session in Philadelphia last week to hear a case that provides the opportunity for the court to act affirmatively on behalf of the several hundred thousand school children in Pennsylvania who have been denied an equitable education for their entire time in school. I became angry listening to the arguments offered by those who think that the court has no place in this battle for the appropriate and equitable funding of our children's education. I was more infuriated when one lawyer said the only thing the state was responsible for was to make sure that there was a school and that its doors were open (Yes, you read that correctly). However, I felt a sense of hope when I reminded myself that favorable rulings have occurred in similar cases in 26 states, including most recently in Connecticut where the State Superior Court ruled that poor students were being left behind by the state’s current funding system.
Many of Pennsylvania’s students attend schools that have no textbooks, teachers, substitute teachers, counselors, teacher’s aides, nurses, or support staff. The Philadelphia School District identified 2,500 students who did not have a permanent, certified teacher for two-thirds of the past school year. Too many Pennsylvania students attend schools where important programming has been stripped away; where some classrooms have as many as 40 students, and others have more than that. They come to schools that are crumbling and filled with lead in their water or on their walls. They try to learn in a state that has been rated by the U.S. Department of Education as the worst in the nation in terms of the inequity of school funding between wealthy and poor school districts. In spite of all these problems, children in low-income schools still show up with the hope they will make their way through the hell that is supposed to be called public education in Pennsylvania.
It is clear that for decades governors and legislatures from both parties have failed to make the appropriate, moral, consistent, and strategic investments to secure our children’s future. It is also clear from this same sad, long history that these investments will not be made. Consequently, the courts must take this issue away from the legislature and move toward equity and fully resourced schools for every student so that every child can receive a 21st century education.
The most damning statistic is from a recently released study that indicates at the current pace, it would take 20 years for poor school districts to reach equity and appropriate funding. A child starting in Pre-K and moving through the system to a 12th grade graduation would spend their entire school career in a drastically underfunded school. This cannot be the new normal.
I sit as the Democratic Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and am responsible for negotiating the state budget with my leadership colleagues, and with whoever is the governor. Although there has been minimal progress over the years on this issue, and although I believe in protecting the power of the legislature from being curtailed by either the executive or judicial branches, I also believe that there are times when the courts must weigh in on important and fundamental societal issues. This is clearly one of those times.
Our children did not cause this problem in their schools. In fact, it must be acknowledged that these problems are rooted in the days of slavery when a teacher would be locked up if they were found teaching a slave to read. If you were a slave, you would be beaten if you even picked up a book. This inequity is also rooted in privilege and education funding based on property and wealth. This organized oppression has transcended race and moved into class where low-income school children across Pennsylvania are struggling in schools that are funded insufficiently. The failure to fully right the wrongs that were born in those days must be corrected so that every child, no matter their color, class, or zip code can access a high-quality education.
The 7th Senatorial district, which I represent, illustrates this inequality very clearly. My constituents live in both challenged communities in Philadelphia and very economically wealthy communities in the suburbs. The schools in Philadelphia spend about $13,000 per child while schools in the suburban part of my district spend as much as $21,000. To get a better picture, multiply that $8,000/per child difference times 30 children in a classroom and you will see that the wealthy classroom has $240,000 more spending going on than that low income classroom.
Despite the gap in resources, students in urban, rural and suburban areas are expected to achieve at the same level. The legislature recently established rigorous promotion and graduation requirements. However, school funding was dramatically cut at the same time as these standards were put in place. Low-income school districts with no local income base to make up for the cuts were hit the hardest and students fell further behind.
Some will say that money doesn't matter. However, when we had consistent targeted increases in education funding over a 5-year period, we saw some amazing successes. For a brief period, Pennsylvania was the only state in the nation where test scores went up in every grade level and in every subject matter, even for those cohorts of children where progress had historically been a problem. But an election occurred and the will of the new governor and the new legislature made public education a lesser priority. Consequently, that success was followed by a massive cut in education funding and the progress was wiped out.
The legal action happening in Pennsylvania is part of a national trend. School children, parents, advocates, activists, education rights attorneys and elected officials throughout the nation are turning towards the courts to address the issue of equitable and appropriate funding of public education because their respective state governments have failed. As Pennsylvania has demonstrated since the Civil War, states throughout the nation have shown that equity and appropriate funding is illusory. As is the case in most major moral and legal matters in this nation’s history, the courts must intercede. It is their job and duty, and there is precedent. Our children and the future of our nation depend on it.
Senator Vincent J. Hughes represents the 7th Senatorial District in the Pennsylvania Senate. Follow him on Twitter at @SenatorHughes and visit his website at SenatorHughes.com.