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Promises of equity for Philly’s schools aren’t worth as much as actual money | Opinion

A coalition for equity needs to be backed by spending transparency.

Traffic in front of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters is heavy because of families trying to pick up laptops. The School District is handing out Chromebooks at the school administration building on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in preparation for the start of virtual classes.
Traffic in front of the School District of Philadelphia headquarters is heavy because of families trying to pick up laptops. The School District is handing out Chromebooks at the school administration building on Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020, in preparation for the start of virtual classes.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

It’s a disturbing reality that the United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world. And children here in Philadelphia suffer from the worst poverty rate (37%) of the 10 largest cities in the country. Those poverty numbers on the ground translate into hunger, housing insecurity, lack of health care, and substandard education. Studies indicate that children living in poverty have to contend with weaker language, memory, and self-regulation development, and, as they reach adulthood, earn less, experience more health problems, and are more likely to end up in the criminal justice system.

President Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan,” advanced by the U.S. House Budget Committee this week, includes a number of government tax and transfer programs that could potentially cut child poverty in half, from a baseline of 13.4% to 6.6%. These programs include extensions of SNAP benefits and unemployment insurance, direct one-time payments, and monthly installments of a refundable child tax credit.

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But while we wait on any federal help to have a positive impact on local families, we also need action to improve conditions here and now. Living conditions in Philadelphia for children in low income are exacerbated by inequities in school resources, such as the quality and condition of buildings and playgrounds, lead and asbestos risk, and the age of computers and library holdings. This disparity results in lowered academic performance, which negatively impacts future professional success.

Leadership in the School District of Philadelphia has expressed an outward commitment to equity through programs designed like the superintendent’s Equity Coalition. But when that professed commitment isn’t consistently reflected in spending priorities, that creates a serious problem of injustice and causes more suffering for students. To address this, the Equity Coalition must look closely at school needs across the district, as well as the distribution of resources and spending needed to address them. The coalition’s current “Core Objectives” don’t explicitly prioritize spending to promote equity. The closest they come is: “Creating an equity audit and subsequent action plan that highlights our short- and long-term commitments.” They should spell out that those “commitments” include raising, allocating, and spending district funds.

As an example, some district schools already have much higher-quality facilities than others thanks to parent and community fund-raising efforts in higher-income areas. A 2019 WHYY investigation found that playgrounds are more common in Center City and neighborhoods closer to downtown, gentrifying neighborhoods, and those with a strong history of community-based activism and development. These schools are arguably less in need of additional district or public-private partnership funding than schools that lack parent organizations, like “friends of” groups, capable of raising money. That should become a factor in district spending decisions.

Writing for the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools, Karel Kilimnik recommended that the district upload a detailed breakdown on the Office of Capital Programs website giving the status and condition of every school playground. This suggestion could be expanded to promote transparency around the full range of school resources. Parents and community members deserve to know where the need is greatest, so they can demand that the district prioritize spending to promote equity.

In addition, for students living in poverty who are already poorly served in schools, growing literacy gaps can have long-term impacts on student performance. Community members can team up with high schools, colleges, and businesses to launch a citywide campaign — “Read, Baby, Read!” — involving volunteers who promise to read to one or more children on a regular basis. Studies have shown that a child’s third-grade reading level can be predictive of chances to graduate high school. (While, ideally, these community volunteers would meet in person with students, COVID necessitates that the program start out virtually on Zoom, or other platforms already utilized by the district for remote learning.) The volunteers would be screened through the district’s volunteer background check program to ensure safety, and draw from existing guidance on age- and level-appropriate books.

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Philadelphians should push hard for federal programs to raise children and families out of poverty, demand that our local school district take steps to promote real equity in resources for all students, and step up ourselves to do what we can to help individual children thrive and develop into their full potential.

Deanna Burney has served as a principal at the elementary, middle, and high school levels in the School District of Philadelphia and is CEO of Leading by Learning.

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at