A Tale of Two Cities: Urban Schools and the Lived Reality of Decentralization

“Let’s get a true, fair funding system of all the schools of Pennsylvania, not for one district or another. It’s not fair right now, OK?” Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s words on January 22 came in response to a new state initiative designed to redistribute state funding for education on the basis of need.

Corbett’s move to support the initiative—thought by some to be an election-season pivot three years overdue—addresses a basic issue in the provision of government education: poor regions have fewer economic resources available to drive their educational systems. Financial inequities follow, and funding from higher levels of government is needed to address the chasm in provision.

Decentralization

The fortunes of urban school districts rise and fall on state funding. Yet, since the 1970s, a globalizing trend toward deemphasizing central government expenditures has created a philosophical tension with what University of Wisconsin-Madison scholar Michael Apple termed the “lived realities of real schools.” Structural adjustment—the economic model of decentralization and privatization (designed to lower taxes and free corporate finance for greater market investment)—results in decreased funding from central governments and greater dependence on local resources.

For most urban public schools, high poverty rates mean that local resources are highly limited, and when decentralization also chokes funding from above, uncomfortable contrasts emerge between urban districts and their suburban counterparts. Those contrasts are stark enough to drive even conservative market idealists like Tom Corbett back into the fold of centralized redistributive practice.

An example from Pennsylvania itself illustrates those contrasts.

Two cities: Philadelphia and North Penn school districts

Philadelphia City School District, Pennsylvania’s largest school district, lies just a few miles away from the suburban North Penn School District. Yet, the short commute from urban to suburban sets the two districts worlds apart.

According to data from the 2010 census, median household income in North Penn School District is twice that of Philadelphia City School District: $72,474 per household in North Penn vs. $36,251 in Philadelphia. With half the median income, Philadelphia’s schools need additional funding if their students are expected to meet the same learning standards.

Public data drawn from the National Center for Education Statistics shows how wealthy suburbs comfortably access regional wealth to leverage higher per-student expenditures in the absence of state spending. Philadelphia, a district whose low-income enrollment stands at 77%, derives 35% of its funding from local revenues (with the remaining shortfall made up by state and federal funding), while North Penn, a district with low-income enrollment of 16%, is able to garner 82% of its budget from local revenues and still invest 12% more per student than the city of Philadelphia. The suburb’s lower overall tax rate combined with a higher median income frees up substantial local funding for education.

Public investment

According to Pennsylvania state data, over the ten-year span of time from 2000 through 2010, Philadelphia was steadily outspent by North Penn by an average of 13% per year:

Philadelphia

North Penn

Difference

2009-10

$13,272

14,821

12%

2008-09

12,449

14,586

17%

2007-08

11,963

14,191

19%

2006-07

11,738

13,731

17%

2005-06

11,491

13,380

16%

2004-05

10,834

11,977

11%

2003-04

10,458

10,983

5%

2002-03

9,299

10,318

11%

2001-02

8,748

9,724

11%

2000-01

8,304

9,237

11%

For teachers dedicating their professional labors to these underfunded schools in Philadelphia’s high-risks neighborhoods, compensation is proportionally lower. Classroom teachers in 2012 earned an average of 10.5% less than their suburban counterparts:

Philadelphia

North Penn

Difference

Elementary teachers

$68,177

$75,840

11%

Secondary teachers

$68,015

$74,934

10%

Test data and The Public School Advantage

Test data between the two districts reflects the financial reality. According to data from Pennsylvania’s Department of Education, a gap of 25% which stood between proficiency scores between the two districts in 2010 has since broadened to nearly 30%.

2010

2012

Change

Math

Reading

Math

Reading

Math

Reading

North Penn

84.21

72.83

80.56

73.27

(3.65)

0.44

Philadelphia

58.02

49.39

50.60

43.79

(7.42)

(5.60)

North Penn Advantage

26.19

23.44

29.96

29.48

3.77

6.04

Data points such as these make it difficult for urban schools to argue their case. In 2010, with a 12% gap between urban and suburban spending, the gap in proficiency was 25%. Dollar for dollar, outputs in Philadelphia are significantly lower than they are in North Penn.

According to neo-liberal and libertarian “school choice” advocates, public schools are failing because of low-quality instruction, not funding, and the test scores are thought to reflect it. Since it is open knowledge that students in private schools outperform their public school counterparts on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP) standardized test, why not simply privatize the system? Libertarians, arguing in favor of privatization on the principle that competition drives economy and increases outputs, find support in these test scores.

The problem with this assumption is that the same NAEP data used to make the this case in reality counters it. Private school advocates and University of Illinois professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski stumbled upon an inconvenient truth while working with NAEP data. In their book The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools, the authors write that, much to their surprise, America’s public schools, after disaggregating the data for the populations they serve, consistently outperform private and charter schools.

While the authors have various theories for explaining what they term “the public school advantage” (and they generally attribute this to teacher quality and public accountability), their findings regarding public sector outperformance seem to refute the school choice movement’s standardized test argument. Although private schools provide healthy alternatives for parents who have concerns unaddressed by public schools, a system-wide public-for-private exchange does not suggest any more promising outcomes. In the end, there is no statistical evidence that privatizing urban education will improve student learning.

“It’s not fair right now, OK?”

Public schooling remains the engine of American education, and that engine will not run without adequate funding. For urban schools saddled with providing quality education in low-income districts, revenues from central government remain of vital importance. In this light, Corbett’s January 22 conclusion on limiting state funding for urban schools is well-founded: “It’s not fair.”

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