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Why we marched from Overbrook to Lower Merion to demand fair school funding | Opinion

Senator Vincent Hughes and POWER's Gregory Holston: Our school funding system faces a moral crisis.

PA Senator Vincent J. Hughes (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia), left, and Rev. Gregory Holston marched from Overbrook High School to Lower Merion High on Aug. 19, 2019 to highlight the gap in resources between schools. 
PA Senator Vincent J. Hughes (D-Montgomery/Philadelphia), left, and Rev. Gregory Holston marched from Overbrook High School to Lower Merion High on Aug. 19, 2019 to highlight the gap in resources between schools. |Read moreJAMES ROBINSON (custom credit) / Pennsylvania Senate Democratic Caucus

Walking from Overbrook High School in Philadelphia to Lower Merion High School in Ardmore is a little less than four miles – but the two public schools feel worlds apart.

The world Lower Merion High School occupies is full of resources – a pristine building complete with science labs, a spacious and light-filled library, impeccable art and music rooms, and a state-of-the art auditorium.

The world that Overbrook High School occupies is absent resources – a historic, yet dilapidated building that was built nearly 100 years ago, science labs without running water, a lack of functioning art and music rooms, and an auditorium that – while grand – is shedding bits of its ceiling, like tiny leaves falling from a treetop.

Needless to say, the physical differences between the two schools are stark.

Yet the students in each school are remarkably similar. They’re trying to navigate the whirlwind of schoolwork, social pressures, and family responsibilities that teenagers face, while figuring out who they’re becoming as people. Those common threads that connect students trying to navigate their way through adolescence makes the distance between the schools seem even shorter than 3.5 miles separating Overbrook and Lower Merion high schools.

But there is a divide that separates the quality of education they receive: the color of their skin.

On Aug. 19, we marched those 3.5 miles with our staffs because we need a moral charge. We have to correct the legacy of inequity born of racism.

Lower Merion is not at fault for providing for its students. They’ve operated within the system that exists and they’re doing what people do – trying to take care of their children and provide them with opportunities to succeed.

The problem is that system is rigged. It’s rigged by a school funding policy that, while benign on its surface, remains a monument to a tainted legacy.

How did we get here? How did we arrive at this moment when a teenager at Overbrook and a teenager at Lower Merion, living only a few miles apart, are provided vastly different opportunities based simply on their address?

We know the answer. We know this has not occurred overnight, or, in fact, by accident.

Sixty-five years after Brown vs. Board, we haven’t solved our country’s greatest challenge. Separate has never been equal for Pennsylvania’s students. Well-established research shows that in Pennsylvania, black and brown students receive less school funding than their white counterparts, even when controlling for poverty.

We have a remedy. The state’s adoption of a student-weighted funding formula in 2016 addresses these inequities. It is our challenge to ensure that the formula is fully funded.

The recent formula distributes dollars based on student and school district characteristics, such as a district’s size, level of poverty, local tax revenues, the number of students learning English, and charter school enrollment. These characteristics are given different weights and applied to a three-year student enrollment average, and formula calculations are updated annually. This departs significantly from the previous three decades of state practice, which locked in a fixed amount of money that was only adjusted by a cost-of-living increase each year.

Yet currently, only 11 percent of the state’s $6.2 billion basic education funding is distributed through the student-weighted formula. We must fully fund the formula as quickly as possible – not in tiny increments year after year.

By delaying a student-weighted formula, we ensure school districts across the commonwealth continue to struggle under the weight of inequitable funding. Each year we fail to address this inequity is another year lost for students who need – and deserve – proper resources. We have identified the problem and found a solution, but don’t have the resolve to actually bring about educational equity. That is immoral.

Ask one of the high school students at Overbrook or Lower Merion about the speed at which their lives move and the pace of change occurring in the world they will soon inherit. The answer most certainly will not be “incremental,” which is why we cannot delay their full funding.

Our failure to act plays itself out every day in these two communities.

It’s not enough to say Overbrook students should have access to the same resources as Lower Merion students. That’s clear. And it’s not enough to say Overbrook students should not occupy a classroom, cafeteria, or an auditorium filled with flaking, asbestos-laden ceiling tiles or chipping lead paint. That’s equally absolute.

What we must also say is that the rigged system – that structural racism – must be corrected. We owe it to our students. We owe it to our communities. We owe it to ourselves.

Vincent Hughes is a Pennsylvania state senator representing the 7th District (Montgomery/Philadelphia). Gregory Holston is executive director of POWER, an interfaith organization.