U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Friday that Pennsylvania does the worst job in the nation of funding low-income school districts.
"The state of Pennsylvania is 50th, dead last, in terms of the inequality between how wealthy school districts are funded and poor districts," Duncan said.
Recent Education Department figures show that the amount spent on each student in Pennsylvania's poorest school districts is 33 percent less than the amount spent on each student in the wealthier districts.
With Duncan as he visited Edwin M. Stanton School at 17th and Christian St., in the city's Graduate Hospital neighborhood, was Mayor Nutter, who said there was no reason for the current situation "but for the lack of political will."
"This is an educational apartheid that we're really talking about here," said Nutter. "We should be ashamed of ourselves."
At a news conference, Duncan called for bipartisan work at the state level to address the school funding inequality and reiterated the need to keep educational standards high.
Duncan joined in a roundtable where teachers, community members, parents, lawmakers and students gathered to talk about how Stanton has managed to have successful partnerships with community organizations and nonprofits in the face of poor funding. With him were Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite and Pennsylvania's acting education secretary Pedro Rivera.
E.M. Stanton, a neighborhood K-8 school, was on the verge of being shut down a few years ago but it was saved by a coalition of teachers, parents and community groups. Teachers and parents said the school is able to offer art education, dance lessons, drama, and violin lessons because of the community's extra efforts.
Resident Vicki Ellis said a mentoring program was started more than 20 years ago with adults who had no school-age children or would otherwise not be involved in the school. A few years later, a teacher started what would become the cultural arts program - offering all Stanton students visual arts, drama, music and dance. These programs still exist.
Stanton teachers and parents acknowledge that they are "lucky" to have such community partnerships to fill the gap left by government.
"We spent a lot of time focusing on things that should be part of an education system, that shouldn't be our responsiblity," said Mark Scott, a parent who is active in the local neighborhood association. "We're glad to do it right now...but we hope we can focus on things that are really extra," in the future.
Stanton students emphasized in writing that their school remains underfunded and poorly resourced. Speaking for the students, student government vice president Seandra Berry, a seventh grader, read from a letter pointing out that the school nurse only comes one day a week.
She said the students want a full-time police officer, social worker, better technology to complete assignments, textbooks, and more out of school experiences such as field trips.
Caylah Green, a newly elected student government representative for the 5th grade, added, "We need more art supplies; our teacher buys everything herself."
Ralph Burnley, husband of Stanton principal Stacey Burnley and himself a former school principal, said he is encouraged that Duncan's visit comes as Pennsylvania looks forward to educational funding changes under Gov. Tom Wolf.
"I think the timing for him coming today is appropriate because we've got a new govenor, [who has] already made some promises and steps to improve funding in the state," said Burnley.
Duncan said he visits Philadelphia again and again because of the hope and the challenges it presents. "If the [government] can come together in a bipartisan way, then the children here in Stanton, in Philly and across the state would have access to so much more than they have today,"he said. "Pennsylvania can't be 50th anymore."
Contact staff writer Huizhong Wu at 215-854-2609, firstname.lastname@example.org or @huizhong-wu on Twitter.