Ed. Sec. Arne Duncan Decries School Funding “Injustices” in Philly and Nation

By Denisa R. Superville — December 12, 2014 2 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has waded into Philadelphia’s public school financing crisis—and, more broadly, funding issues in Pennsylvania and the nation—penning an Op-Ed to the Philadelphia Inquirer Friday calling out the injustice of inequitable school funding.

In the column, Duncan says that “until some glaring funding injustices are fixed, in Philadelphia and in many school systems around the country, we will never live up to our nation’s aspirational promises of justice.”

While most of his comments were specific to the Pennsylvania funding issue, he also noted the challenges of inequitable school funding in North Carolina and Kansas.

Duncan gives stark examples of what that lack of money looks like in the schools: A principal at Anna Lane Lingelbach Elementary School whose discretionary budget is just $160 and a teacher who works part-time at seven different schools because those schools don’t have a full-time music instructor.

He lamented the sad reality of the way that American schools are primarily funded (through property taxes). The consequence is that the quality of many public school students’ education is determined in large part by their parents’ income and where they live—whether they live in property-rich school districts that can levy high taxes or not. The majority of the nation’s low-income students—those generally with the highest needs—attend schools in the latter.

“It should embarrass all of us that such injustices endure,” he wrote.

Efforts are underway to correct the funding disparity in Pennsylvania’s schools. A 2007 costing-out study estimated that the state’s schools were underfunded by $4 billion.

A bipartisan committee is collecting testimony from around the state, with the goal of developing a new funding formula. Last month, a group of school districts, parents, the NAACP, and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools sued the state, the acting education secretary, and the legislature for adopting what they called an “irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.”

Duncan also sounded hopeful that things would change in the future, noting that Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has committed to strengthening education funding.

“The key to a fair funding formula is quite simple: Target aid to students who need it most, and adjust current levels of state aid to the districts that are already well supported,” he wrote.

This is not the first time that Duncan has weighed in on the Philadelphia funding issue. During a visit to Philadelphia in July, he said the district was “starved for resources” and called the level of funding “unacceptable,” the Philadelphia Daily News reported at the time.

This is a system that is desperately underfunded, that is starved for resources, and there is simply no upside there," he said. "And to see the personnel cuts, to see the after-school programs go away, the counselors, I just have a simple question: How is that good for children? How is that good for the city, or for the state, or for our nation?" he added.

At the time, the Philadelphia school district’s $2.6 billion budget had a $93 million gap. The district was waiting for the legislature to pass a cigarette tax to gin up more revenue for the city’s schools, and it was also seeking concessions from the union and aid from the city council.

There was also the possibility that the schools would not open on time, the second straight year that the district had contemplated delaying the start of the school year because of a budget crunch.

Duncan ended his piece with a call for improvement.

In Pennsylvania and nationally, getting funding right is a matter of fairness and justice, of ensuring that schools have adequate resources to do their vitally important work," he wrote. "But beyond that, equitable funding reinforces our founding values as a country and signals to all citizens how seriously we take our commitments to one another."

You can read the entire column here.

Source: Students arrive for school in Philadelphia in September. Matt Rourke/AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.