Monday, October 18, 2021

Play in PA tells a story of inequity in school funding


A play, written as a documentary after the playwrights interviewed 150 people for whom the public schools around Philadelphia are part of everyday life, premiered this week in the city, WHYY (NPR affiliate, Philadelphia) reports.

Some of those people were parents, some teachers or guidance counselors, some principals, and even one who had served previously as the state secretary of education. From all the interviews, the script for this masterpiece, called simply School Play, came together through the work of Arden Kass and Seth Bauer, two playwrights whose kids attend Philadelphia public schools.

In 2012, Ms Kass’s daughter was a senior at Central High just as her son was entering Science Leadership Academy, a prestigious magnet school, as a freshman, the station noted.

“When my daughter was going through high school, you never questioned that there is paper to write on,” the station quoted her as saying. “By the time my daughter left Central, she finally made captain of the swim team, but the swim team got cut. … When my son went off to a magnet school, I hate to say this, but the first week he came home and said he was learning Spanish from Rosetta Stone. I thought he was kidding. … They had teachers only for certain classes, and the rest learned from Rosetta Stone.”

One guidance counselor interviewed said she would routinely buy winter clothes during the summer on sale and then distribute the clothes to her students before the cold weather came.

She said she told one girl, “At the end of each day, come see me. No one needs to know.” Then, when the girl came to her office every day For a week, the counselor “filled her backpack and sent her on her way. … She seemed a lot happier,” the counselor character says on stage.

Some schools, particularly those who serve a high percentage of kids living below the poverty line, provide free breakfasts and lunches to the majority of students. Some even get dinner if they participate in after-school activities. And in the Greater Johnstown School District, which serves only 3,000 students, compared to the 200,000 students in the Philadelphia Public School system, there’s a special “backpack program,” which gives needy students a pack full of nonperishable food items to take home for the weekend.

The irony in several situations—parents who love their kids so much that they siphon off resources from schools that suffer, property taxes decide how much money goes to public schools, etc.—comes through loud and clear, despite the play’s tone of non-advocacy.

“It’s true the play does not have a hammer,” the station quoted Donna Cooper as saying. She’s the executive director of the Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an advocacy organization that’s trying to convince the state to release more money to public schools. PCYY commissioned the play. “It does not hit home a particular point of view. It’s anything but preachy. But it’s hard to walk away and not understand the universal truth in this play about the disparity of opportunity, and the implications of that for the next generation.”

These playwrights aren’t the first people to notice a disparity when and wherever school systems are funded by a formula based on property tax revenue.

In February 2005, Ralph Martire wrote in the Chicago Sun-Times about Illinois’s funding problems.

Illinois has an unacceptably large and increasing funding disparity between affluent and all other school districts, a growing achievement gap and a teacher shortage. The majority of schools are deficit spending. Even the state’s minimum per child foundation level of education spending is inadequate, providing more than $1,000 less than what it would cost a highly efficiently operated school district to have just two-thirds of its children pass the state’s standardized tests.

Relying heavily on local property taxes to fund schools causes many of these problems. In effect, it ties the quality of the public education the state can afford to provide a child to the property wealth of the community in which that child lives. Kids in affluent communities get world-class public schools, children in other communities get something far less. The resulting inequities have been lambasted by educators, business leaders and prominent politicians from both political parties. Even national organizations, such as Education Week, continually assign Illinois the failing grade of “F” for school funding fairness.

And less than a year ago, Voxitatis reported that the affluent-vs-poor school funding debate is just now starting to pick up steam. “I say SB 16’s chances are limited in the House because,” we wrote, “while downstate Pana would get 30 percent more money next year from the state than the district received last year, which totaled $5,186 per pupil, northwest suburban Barrington would lose about 80 percent of its current formula funding. Pana would get about $1.7 million more next year if the bill becomes law, but it would come at the expense of districts like Barrington, which now spends about $8,225 per pupil.”

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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