Money Matters: Why A Full, Fair Funding Formula is Essential for Racial Justice in PA
by Sheila Armstrong, Drick Boyd, and Margaret Ernst
Last week, several Philadelphia clergy members of the interfaith organization POWER (Pennsylvanians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild) witnessed a powerful movement for racial equality grow in Ferguson, MO following the killing of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown.
Travelling to Missouri to call for justice and listen to a community in grief, our clergy marched non-violently with black youth asking for fair treatment from law enforcement – and even more importantly, for a sign from their fellow Americans that their lives matter.
But as our clergy brothers and sisters returned home last week, they returned to a place where there is no dearth of racial inequality of its own.
In our own backyards and on our watch, we witness a different kind of violence being done not just to one teenager but to hundreds of thousands of young people across Pennsylvania. As the only state in the union without a funding formula for public education, severe cuts within the last few years have led to a disproportionate hemorrhaging of school districts with mostly African American and Latino students like Philadelphia, the consequences of which will be felt for generations.
Sheila Armstrong, a POWER member from North Philadelphia with two boys in Philadelphia public schools, can testify to those consequences and the broken promises that have come with them. At events in her community in 2010, she witnessed Governor Corbett and other legislators running for state office promise that a new day had come for education in the state. But after a $1 billion cut to education funding in 2011, one of her son’s elementary schools closed down. In 2012, she wondered whether her son with asthma would be OK on days that no nurse was on duty due to staffing cuts. This year, she was left unsure whether schools would even open in September.
Now, school will indeed start on time, but with less cleaning services, security and transportation assistance for children. Aside from having to worry about whether her boys will get a good education, Sheila and thousands of Philadelphia parents like her will fear every day for their basic health and safety.
Young people of color in Missouri and across the country have wondered whether they matter in the wake of the killing of Michael Brown. As we reflect on the circumstances of education funding here in Pennsylvania, we too are left to ask, do Sheila and her sons matter in the eyes of lawmakers?
With Harrisburg’s newly formed Basic Education Commission beginning its work, now is the time for lawmakers to answer that question. The Commission, which has met twice already and will make recommendations for a funding formula by the end of June, can and must prophetically re-imagine what it takes to fund education in our state. To do this well, we must be willing to have an open and honest conversation about race as Pennsylvanians.
As cuts were made at the state level, large, predominantly black, brown, and poor districts across the state such as Philadelphia, Allentown, and Reading have been left drowning without a lifeline. Unable to make up differences in state spending with local revenue, the disproportionate impact on these students is rooted not merely in recent spending cuts nor in education policy alone. It rests on, and perpetuates, a much longer history of disinvestment from communities of color that has created today’s dramatic racial wealth gap, and which will continue if left unaddressed.
But in the case of education spending in PA, a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. While cuts have had severe impact on Philadelphia and other predominantly non-white districts, dwindling state funds have resulted in major cuts in poor, rural districts in predominantly white communities, and soaring property taxes in the suburbs.
All of our children are worth more. In addition to being bold enough to talk about the severe “investment gap” in students of color and poor children in our state, the Commission must set goals for increasing education funding levels as a whole. We must not just fairly divide up a pie that we refuse to grow – we must grow the pie.
Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq testified in the Commission’s August meeting that “money matters” for children to achieve in school. We cannot think of a better argument for increased funding, and for a fair distribution of those funds that ensures we will not continue to replicate an education system that in spite of other civil rights gains, is woefully still separate and still unequal. It is the choice of the Basic Education Commission and all us Pennsylvanians whom it represents whether we will continue trends of economic and racial inequality or begin to reverse them.
The discussion about how much our children are worth to us, wherever they were born and whatever the color of their skin, is a sacred one – and has never been a more important. Let’s have it now, and let’s have it courageously.