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.
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.
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.