On Thursday, lawyers delivered closing arguments in Pennsylvania’s historic school funding trial. Throughout months of testimony, the defendants of the current system have argued that the path to educational equity lies in increasing so-called school choice, which provides funding for families who want to pull their children out of traditional public schools and instead send them to independent and religious schools.
As the leader of the oldest independent Quaker school in Center City, I would argue that this is not the most equitable way to fund education in Pennsylvania.
I serve as head of Friends Select School, which for more than three centuries has educated Philadelphia-area students according to the Quaker values upon which our city was founded: simplicity, peace, integrity, community, equality, and stewardship. These are not just school ideals, but the guiding principles that Friends Select faculty encourage students to bring into the world.
These same values are also useful guideposts for how to provide education for all Pennsylvanians. For far too long, those who make school funding decisions have had other priorities.
Independent schools play an important role in our commonwealth’s educational ecosystem, which includes public, private, religious, and charter institutions, as well as homeschools and other less traditional methods. In an ideal world, these various branches complement each other to collectively meet the diverse needs of Pennsylvania’s students.
But when one piece doesn’t function as it should, the whole system falters.
Sadly, we’ve seen that faltering on prominent display in the school funding trial that has been raging for months and finally culminates this week. It has shown a state education budget that is both inadequate and inequitable.
The system as a whole is underfunded to the tune of $4.6 billion, and the way school funding is distributed now, the students who need the most — those experiencing higher rates of poverty — get the least. Currently, the state provides relatively little funding to each school, leaving individual districts to make up the difference, such as with property taxes. So wealthier districts with wealthier homes have better-funded schools.
Pennsylvania employs a fair funding formula that aims to improve equity by directing money to school districts based on student enrollment, the needs of the student population, school district wealth, and the capacity to raise local revenues. But only a small fraction of our education funding is allocated according to the formula.
The result, as we’ve seen, is wide disparities in education funding from district to district. Across the commonwealth, too many school districts lack the resources to provide the comprehensive education that every student deserves.
This isn’t the equity or fairness or integrity that we try to teach our students.
“This isn’t the equity or fairness or integrity that we try to teach our students.”
Schools like Friends Select work every day to meet our role in educating a share of Pennsylvania students. Friends Select is an independent Quaker school, and we believe that private institutions have a public purpose in the communities we serve. As a school that is both in the city and of the city, we aim to support all students and families, regardless of whether they are enrolled here or elsewhere.
Some of our support is direct, through scholarships and educational programming for students who might not otherwise be able to access a private school. But we can also offer indirect support for educational equity.
We have a voice, along with other independent schools, and it’s critical that we all use it — publicly so that legislators in Harrisburg hear us. Let’s be as loud as the brilliant students who so often lead the way on the most pressing challenges we face.
If independent schools don’t join the call for equitable education funding across the state, we are failing students everywhere, and failing to hold up the values that we as a community hold most dear.
Michael Gary is head of Friends Select School at 17th Street and the Ben Franklin Parkway.