Segregation in Pennsylvania schools: How a ZIP code determines the quality of a child’s education

Students at Allentown’s Harrison-Morton Middle School look forward to hearing the squeaky wheels of the technology cart approaching their classroom, though the iPads they hold may not be the latest models and time with them is limited.

A luxury in Allentown schools, such technology has become a necessity for many suburban students — something they’re accustomed to tapping at-will and often.

Technology is one of the many things that separate students in Pennsylvania’s school districts, where wealth equates to quality.

Food is another. That’s why the staff at Donegan Elementary School on Bethlehem’s South Side sends students home with a bag of healthy snacks on weekends.

Because clothing also can divide students who have from those who have not, the Bethlehem Area School District installed a washer and dryer at Donegan, ensuring children have access to clean clothes.

Language sets students or schools apart, too. And so do ZIP codes, education reformers say, effectively segregating students by income and race.

The problem

Where you live determines what type of education you receive in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.

Where the tax base is high, the educational offerings tend to be many. Where it is low, the options decline.

The gap isn’t just between districts but sometimes between schools in the same district.

Joan Preston, who has been teaching science in Allentown for more than two decades, tries to put her Harrison-Morton students on equal footing with those in the bordering Salisbury Township, East Penn, Parkland and Whitehall-Coplay districts. But she doesn’t have the resources to get them all there.

“I want to provide the same science experience that their counterparts get,” Preston said, “but it’s a challenge with our budget.”

This disparity, said Maura McInerney, an attorney with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, comes down to one thing: the property tax structure that Pennsylvania uses to fund education.

Because the system relies more heavily on local taxes than on state and federal money, the scales tip in favor of wealthier suburban districts.

Urban districts, which are educating a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students, don’t have the tax base to provide the same quality of education, McInerney and others say.

“I want to provide the same science experience that their counterparts get, but it’s a challenge with our budget.”

 

Joan Preston, a sixth-grade science teacher at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown, works with students about a lab they had just completed.
Joan Preston, a sixth-grade science teacher at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown, works with students about a lab they had just completed. (Amy Shortell/The Morning Call)

They often can’t afford to replace old schools, fix heating systems, add air conditioning, buy new technology or hire the additional teachers needed to reduce class sizes, address language issues and provide instructional support.

“It’s inadequate,” McInerney said. “We have systematic racial segregation that has become more entrenched over the decades.”

The longer it takes to come up with a new funding system, the more children will be hurt by the system’s inadequacy and inequity, she added.

Harrison-Morton lacks air conditioning. Fans and open windows are the only means of cooling classrooms.
Harrison-Morton lacks air conditioning. Fans and open windows are the only means of cooling classrooms. (Amy Shortell / The Morning Call)

The problem is particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which Rutgers University education professor and researcher Bruce D. Baker flagged along with Illinois as the worst states for education inequality. In a 2014 report for the Center for American Progress, Baker found that the Allentown and Reading school districts were among the country’s most disparate.

“Quite possibly, the nation’s most fiscally disadvantaged local public school districts of significant size lie to the north and west of Philadelphia, in the districts of Reading and Allentown,” Baker wrote. “These districts sit at the bottom of the revenue distribution and serve very high need student populations.”

Neither, he said, has the ability to raise enough money from local taxes to meet student needs. The result is racial and economic segregation, Baker and McInerney said. If allowed to continue, the uphill climb will only get steeper.

No one is more familiar with that reality than Allentown Superintendent Thomas Parker, whose district is “always one emergency from disaster.”

This map shows the poverty rate by school district (for the overall population, not just students enrolled). Blue districts have a poverty rate below the Pennsylvania rate of 13.1%. Orange districts are above the statewide rate. Hover over a district for more info.

While tax increases and belt-tightening have become routine for Lehigh Valley school districts, none has been more financially stressed than Allentown, the area’s biggest and poorest.

Desperate to fund its budget and erase a $21 million deficit this year, Allentown raised taxes by 1.75%; left vacant 28 paraprofessional, five teacher and two security officer positions; and then begged charter schools to collectively accept $6 million less — which they rejected.

But none of those drastic measures will bridge the disparity between Allentown and its neighbors. At best, they will only keep the gap from getting wider.

“Quite possibly, the nation’s most fiscally disadvantaged local public school districts of significant size lie to the north and west of Philadelphia, in the districts of Reading and Allentown.”

Consider that Allentown spent about $14,854 to educate each of its students in the 2017-18 school year, with about 33% of it coming from local taxes. In the neighboring Salisbury Township School District, $22,841 was spent on each student, with 73% coming from local taxes.

Local taxes alone generated $16,666 for each Salisbury student, surpassing the revenue Allentown received from local, state and federal sources combined. Adding state and federal money to the equation, Salisbury had $8,000 more to spend on each of its students than Allentown had.

Drawing a correlation between Allentown’s financial state and the quality of education it can provide, Parker wrote in an opinion piece in The Morning Call in May: “It cannot be the narrative of this city, this region, this district, that Allentown students somehow deserve less.”

The Morning Call looked at the disparity between and within districts, with visits to Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown and Salisbury Middle School in Salisbury Township. It also spent time in two third-grade classrooms in Bethlehem elementary schools: Donegan and Hanover.

The outcome backed up what Parker, McInerney and Baker contend: That poverty creates a sharp educational disadvantage.

 

Comparing districts
Allentown Salisbury
Expenditures per pupil $14,854 $22,841
Property tax 21.3 mills 18.54 mills
Median income $37,807 $73,324
Median house assessment $110,000 $209,700
Economically disadvantaged 83% 38%
ESL 15% 4%
Graduation rate 72% 95%
Dropout rate 4.2% 0.74%
White 10% 69%
Black 15% 4%
Hispanic 71% 14%
Asian 1% 3%
Enrollment 16,234 1,573

Finding a solution

Education equity basically involves determining how much money districts need and where the money will come from, said Justin Silverstein, co-CEO at Augenblick Palaich and Associates, a Colorado firm that helps states design funding formulas.

“One of the key things about making two communities next to each other equitable is making sure both those communities have the capacity to raise those additional dollars,” Silverstein said.

That might require states to give more money to districts that don’t have the tax base to raise it themselves, he said.

A case set to come to trial next summer could turn the tide in Pennsylvania by forcing the Legislature to find an equitable education funding formula.

Filed in 2014 on behalf of six school districts — Panther Valley being the only one in the Lehigh Valley region — the lawsuit contends that the state’s way of funding K-12 education is unconstitutional because it creates “gross and irrational disparities” between districts, essentially discriminating against poorer students. While most states provided 44% of education funds on average, the lawsuit says Pennsylvania covered only 34%, leaving districts to cover more of their expenses with local tax dollars.

Shifting the burden to local taxpayers isn’t fair, say education reformers as well as property owners on fixed incomes, who struggle to cover rising school taxes.

For decades, Pennsylvania lawmakers have tried and failed to find a fairer way to fund schools. They came close to replacing the school property tax with higher income and sales taxes in 2015, but the Property Tax Independence Act fell one vote short in the state Senate. Sen. David Argall, R-Schuylkill, sponsored the bill and hasn’t given up on it.

“One of the key things about making two communities next to each other equitable is making sure both those communities have the capacity to raise those additional dollars.”

He’s been working on school property tax reform with an informal group of lawmakers from both parties and chambers. But the discussion then and now has centered more on reform that’s fairer to property owners, who contribute about $15 billion a year to Pennsylvania schools, than on improving education.

That’s what the lawsuit is asking Commonwealth Court to force lawmakers to do — devise a formula that gives all students access to a quality education.

Pennsylvania is not alone in seeking a remedy from the courts. William Koski, founder and director of Stanford Law School’s Youth and Education Law Project, said lawsuits over school funding have been filed in 44 states.

Despite all the cases, however, no magic formula has emerged.

 

“When plaintiffs win, there typically is some kind of change,” he said. “Sometimes it’s incremental and doesn’t add up to much. … Sometimes it’s monumental.”

In Washington state, for example, reform has been incremental since the state Supreme Court in 2012 sided with the plaintiff in a lawsuit alleging the state underfunded its schools. The decision forced Washington to pump billions of dollars into education. And still, most districts this school year were projecting budget shortfalls, according to The Seattle Times. School leaders blamed the shortfalls on the cost of special education or on the unintended consequences of reform, including caps on local taxes.

In Kansas, reform could be monumental. In June, an almost decadelong legal battle over how much education funding should come from the state finally ended when the Kansas Supreme Court signed off on a law that increases the state’s portion by $90 million a year.

 

Similar to the Pennsylvania and Washington cases, Kansas’ lawsuit was filed by districts that accused the state of not adequately funding education in accordance with the state constitution. The decision promises funding increases through 2023, according to a report in The New York Times, and gives the court authority to make the Legislature stick to its commitment.

Prudence Jackson, left, pours food coloring into a tray during a lab activity in her science class at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown.
Prudence Jackson, left, pours food coloring into a tray during a lab activity in her science class at Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown. (Amy Shortell/The Morning Call)

For many years, Pennsylvania used a system that gave each district at least as much money as it received the year before, no matter if its enrollment went up or down. In 2011, then-Gov. Tom Corbett shrank the state’s allocation to public schools and universities by about $1 billion, a cut that some districts have not rebounded from.

In 2016, Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration changed the formula to give more money to poorer districts. But the change only applied to new state money that districts get each year, which accounts for only a small fraction of Pennsylvania’s education spending. So it did little to cut down on the disparities between districts.

Still, Pennsylvania ranks in the top 10 states for per-student spending, averaging about $17,600 last year.

Utah, on the other hand, spends less than half of that amount per student but relies on what some consider a more equitable system to fund education — income taxes. Its constitution requires that all income tax revenue be used for education. The needier the school, the more state money it gets. But while Utah ranks high in equality, it ranks at the bottom in per-pupil spending — about $5,000 lower than the national average — and its test scores are in the middle of the pack, said Moe Hickey, CEO of Voices of Utah Children, an advocacy group.

“The question we’re grappling with here is, if we spent more on education, would we get better results? Our argument is, we believe we could,” Hickey said.

At the opposite end of per-pupil spending is Massachusetts, which consistently turns up at or near the top in nationwide education rankings. Some districts in Massachusetts get 90% of their money from the state, while others get very little and make up the difference with local taxes, said Jackie Reis, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department.

William Barndt, 13, a seventh grade student at Salisbury Middle School, works on his laptop during math class. Some Lehigh Valley schools have the newest technology, while others aren't so fortunate.
William Barndt, 13, a seventh grade student at Salisbury Middle School, works on his laptop during math class. Some Lehigh Valley schools have the newest technology, while others aren’t so fortunate. (Rick Kintzel / The Morning Call)

As a result, per-pupil spending in Massachusetts is the seventh highest in the country, according to U.S. census data, two notches above Pennsylvania.

But an achievement gap persists. And so does a spending gap, with Lawrence Public Schools, one of the state’s poorest districts, spending about $10,000 less per student than Weston Public Schools, one of the wealthiest districts.

“We set a floor; there’s no ceiling,” Reis said. “If the district wants to spend more, it certainly can.”

In Pennsylvania, the disparity is exacerbated by the growth of charter schools, which are costing school districts money, as state funding earmarked for districts is then passed to charters. With salary, pension, special education and security costs also rising, districts are having a harder time stretching their tax dollars.

The Bethlehem Area School District isn’t waiting for the state to come up with a solution.

With about 60% of its 14,000 students labeled economically disadvantaged, Bethlehem is training teachers to understand the trauma that students face from such things as abuse, incarcerated parents or violence. Last year, for the first time, all 16 elementary schools received their own guidance counselors.

And where it lacks funding for positions, Bethlehem Area has partnered with groups such as St. Luke’s University Health Network, Lehigh University, Communities in Schools and United Way of the Greater Lehigh Valley to bring resources and positions, such as family development specialists who act as social workers and after school coordinators.

“We’re being attentive to where the kids are coming from,” said Superintendent Joseph Roy.

As part of the equity policy, Bethlehem Area allocates budget dollars evenly, with all schools receiving the same amount of money based on student population. But it puts more resources at schools on the South Side and in other lower-income neighborhoods. For example, Roy is proposing transportation for South Side students who live nearly 2 miles from Liberty High School but not far enough to receive mandatory busing.

He also wants to increase the number of minority elementary students in the district’s gifted program and find ways to cut down on the cost of summer school for students who can’t afford it and, therefore, end up repeating a grade.

In New York City, where the population in many schools does not reflect the city’s rich diversity, high school students have held rallies and protests to address policies that put low-income and minority students at a disadvantage for getting into some of the city’s elite public schools.

And the mayor has taken up the cause, proposing changes to admissions policies that have contributed to segregation.

“The question is not, is integration going to happen, it’s how it is going to happen, and are we going to slack off like we did 55 years ago?” 17-year-old Obrian Rosario told The New York Times.

Students at Donegan Elementary School in Bethlehem receive knitted "Hat Not Hate" campaign hats from at an event in early October. The Bethlehem Area School District puts more resources into schools on the South Side, where Donegan is located, and in other lower-income neighborhoods.
Students at Donegan Elementary School in Bethlehem receive knitted “Hat Not Hate” campaign hats from at an event in early October. The Bethlehem Area School District puts more resources into schools on the South Side, where Donegan is located, and in other lower-income neighborhoods. (April Gamiz/The Morning Call)

In the Pennsylvania lawsuit, Panther Valley and the other districts are asking the court to effect change. The suit, which lists two lawmakers, the governor and the Education Department as defendants, was filed by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers on behalf of the districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.

“The reason why we had to bring this case is because the Legislature shows no interest in fixing this problem without some intervention,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney for the Public Interest Law Center.

On the whole, he said, lawsuits brought in the past 25 years have increased funding for students across the country and improved academic performance. He also pointed to a 2015 study showing funding reforms have led to lower student-teacher ratios and higher teacher salaries.

Time will tell if Pennsylvania’s lawsuit will do the same.

“Money is no guarantor of success,” Churchill cautioned. “It is a tool. It then requires school boards to use it wisely and use it well.”

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