Budget & Finance Q&A

How Fair School Funding Became the Unlikely Topic for a Student Podcast

By Mark Lieberman — March 23, 2023 5 min read
Podcast 022023 1371555667 01
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Paul Vandy, 17, always knew his school, Penn Wood High in the Philadelphia suburbs, wasn’t the cleanest or the most modern.

But it wasn’t until the current senior visited a nearby school in the suburban Lower Merion district for a speech and debate competition that he realized just how big education disparities can be. He walked into the building and was awestruck by the amount of space, a fancy pool, and enormous basketball courts.

“After that moment, it really clicked, the difference between what we have, and what another school a few miles down the road was receiving,” Paul said.

Since then, Paul has been working to make that reality click for others across the state. Children’s First Pennsylvania, a nonprofit advocacy group, last year invited Paul, along with Penn Wood classmates Trinity Giddens and Lisa Asamoah, to host a weekly podcast recapping a state school funding trial in which several Pennsylvania districts, including their own, argued that the state’s formula for funding schools was massively shortchanging school systems in low-wealth areas.

Paul Vandy speaks at a rally for improved school funding outside the state legislature building in Harrisburg, Pa., on July 26, 2022.

The disparities Paul encountered are reflected in the state’s most recently available school spending data, reported annually to the federal government. In 2019-20, the majority-Black William Penn district, with 4,700 students, spent $16,138 per student in federal, state, and local dollars. That same year, the 8,500-student, majority-white Lower Merion district spent close to $27,000 per student.
Last month, Paul was joining a Zoom meeting to discuss an op-ed he co-wrote urging the state to take action when he received what he called “a great surprise": A judge had issued a ruling in favor of the districts that sued, deeming the state’s approach to school funding “unconstitutional” and in need of a major overhaul.

State lawmakers have signaled they don’t plan to appeal the judge’s verdict, which means politicians now must come up with a remedy to ensure all students have equal access to an “efficient and thorough” education.

Tracking the trial from a student perspective

The three hosts of “PENNding Funds,” sponsored by the advocacy group Children’s First Pennsylvania, saw firsthand the machinations that led to the plaintiffs’ victory after nine years of legal battles.

Over 26 episodes between three and five minutes each, they interviewed teachers, attorneys, parents, and lawmakers; recapped developments from testimony on the stand; and shared candid reflections on their experiences in underfunded public schools—bringing in tissues from home for classrooms because the district didn’t provide any; having to eat cold “alternative lunches” because parents had racked up too much debt to pay for hot meals; and sitting in classrooms with chipping paint and no working heat.

Paul spoke with Education Week about how he came to host a school funding podcast, what he hopes listeners took away from it, and why he believes adults need to listen more closely to students.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What were some of the biggest issues you’ve encountered in your school building?

There was flooding and roof leaks pretty often. All around, you can just see things were outdated. When the AC wasn’t working, it wasn’t immediately fixed. It took a while before anything was able to be fixed.

It’s hard to want to have things you were never exposed to. I don’t know what kind of opportunities I never should have expected. We wanted more AP classes, more clubs, more resources.

How did the opportunity to host a school funding podcast come about?

I pretty much found out about the lawsuit when [Children First] approached us about doing the podcast. I didn’t know anything about that until they introduced the topic.

It’s not fair that a student from my area has these kinds of limited opportunities, and another student who’s just like them, a few miles down from another town, has something way different.

Another person from my school had recommended me. I was sitting in my room, during the summer, I wasn’t doing much. When they asked if I wanted to do a podcast, I never thought I could do something to that degree. I thought it was great to have a greater voice for concerns that students had in our school.

What was the biggest learning curve you had to overcome?

At first I wasn’t a great public speaker at all. I was kind of stiff. I did have the experience of being a student representative, which opened me up to a degree. Going on the podcast, being forced to do it every other week, I feel like it really helped me be better at expressing my ideas and thoughts.

It ended up being a lot more fun talking to these people who have all these different perspectives and getting to ask them the questions I personally have had for all these years.

See Also

Large white hand holding a weighing scale with a bag of money on one side and books with floating letters on the other side showing a balance of knowledge and money
Education Funding 6 Lawsuits That Could Shake Up How States Pay for Schools
Mark Lieberman, January 27, 2023
6 min read

What was the most rewarding part of hosting the podcast?

One of the episodes, me and Trinity, we interviewed another student from our school, one of our friends. It was cool having a conversation we had in school amongst ourselves, and getting to broadcast that to all these different people.

I think this whole experience, it really helped me get better at public speaking, expressing my ideas. When I know something’s messed up, putting my voice out there, trying to say, “no this isn’t right.” My overall plan after high school is a pre-med biology track to go into the medical field, specifically trying to be a psychiatrist. I’m sure the lessons I got from doing the podcast will be really useful in my future career.

What message were you trying to send over the course of the episodes you produced?

I just wanted to get through to people, mainly adults. Students, we’re in the building, we see the conditions. We’re trying to showcase that these are all the challenges we have to deal with on a daily basis.

Students are probably the best people to talk about these kinds of issues. As children you feel like you don’t have a voice, let the adults handle this, it’s not my ring to step into. I can step up into my own community, my own school, and advocate for the betterment of my peers.

It’s not fair that a student from my area has these kinds of limited opportunities, and another student who’s just like them, a few miles down from another town, has something way different. We all have potential to learn and develop and do great things. I really wanted to point out that we shouldn’t have a system where two bright students may not be able to get to the same level because one school didn’t have the same level of education.


Budget & Finance Webinar Staffing Schools After ESSER: What School and District Leaders Need to Know
Join our newsroom for insights on investing in critical student support positions as pandemic funds expire.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Student Achievement Webinar
How can districts build sustainable tutoring models before the money runs out?
District leaders, low on funds, must decide: broad support for all or deep interventions for few? Let's discuss maximizing tutoring resources.
Content provided by Varsity Tutors for Schools
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
Roundtable Webinar: Why We Created a Portrait of a Graduate
Hear from three K-12 leaders for insights into their school’s Portrait of a Graduate and learn how to create your own.
Content provided by Otus

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Budget & Finance Why Chronic Absenteeism Is a Budget Problem, Too
Chronic absenteeism has serious academic consequences. It also comes with a price tag.
7 min read
Illustration of empty school desks with scissors cutting 100 dollar bill.
F. Sheehan for Education Week + iStock / Getty Images Plus
Budget & Finance How to Build Voter Support for School Bonds: 5 Tips
A ‘steady drumbeat of communication’ with lots of detailed information go a long way, district leaders say.
5 min read
Conceptual illustration of Newton's Cradle: 4 balls on strings and one ball is pulled back and swinging towards other three. The one pulled back represents money and has a dollar sign on it.
Wenmei Zhou/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Budget & Finance Passing School Bonds Is Hard. Advice From 3 Superintendents Who Did It
‘Educating instead of campaigning’ in an era when district leaders are under a political microscope.
8 min read
Collage of a construction site and school grounds.
Collage via Canva
Budget & Finance Why Some K-12 Students Have to Pay for a Bus Ride to School
Transportation costs force some districts to consider charging fees for students who live near school buildings to ride the bus.
7 min read
Photo illustration of school bus and people exchanging cash.
F. Sheehan for Education Week + Getty