The following is an excerpt from a report by the Washington Post
PHILADELPHIA — At Martin Luther King High, a hulking half-full school here, there aren’t enough textbooks to go around. If teachers want to make a photocopy, they have to buy paper themselves. Though an overwhelming majority of students are living in poverty, no social worker is available to help. Private donations allow for some dance and music classes, but they serve just 60 of the school’s 1,200 students.
At Lower Merion High, 10 miles away in a suburb of stately stone homes, copy paper and textbooks are available but are rarely necessary: Each student has a school-provided laptop. A pool allows for lifeguarding classes, and an arts wing hosts courses in photography, ceramics, studio art and jewelry making. The campus has a social worker.
While there always have been inequalities among the nation’s public schools, the gap in spending between public schools in the poorest and most-affluent communities has grown during the past decade.
Nowhere is that gap wider than in Pennsylvania, according to federal data. School districts with the highest poverty rates here receive one-third fewer state and local tax dollars, per pupil, than the most affluent districts. This spring, the new governor has outlined an ambitious plan to address the inequities, but it faces opposition at the statehouse. At the same time, a lawsuit over inadequate school funding is making its way through the courts, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for change.
“When the state systematically, significantly underfunds children who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, something is wrong with that picture,” Duncan said last month at a Philadelphia elementary school.
Spending on school operations — not including school construction or debt payments — ranges from less than $8,700 per student in a coal country district, one of the state’s lowest-achieving, to more than $26,600 in a tony Philadelphia suburb.
Philadelphia falls in the middle, spending about $13,000 per student to operate schools, compared with about $23,000 per child in Lower Merion, according to state data.
Tom Wolf, the new governor of Pennsylvania, wants greater parity.
The chief executive of a kitchen-cabinet business who had never held elected office, Wolf campaigned last year on promises to tax the gas industry to raise money for education. The strategy paid off: Polls showed that voters, after watching public schools sustain deep cuts, considered education the top issue in the race. In November, as Republicans won sweeping victories across the country, Wolf became the nation’s only Democrat to unseat a Republican governor.
“There was a wide recognition that the system was broken,” Wolf said in a recent interview, adding that cuts to public school funding were both an economic and moral mistake. “One of the great civil injustices is to say we’re going to make your education dependent on your Zip code.”
Advocates and teachers have cheered his proposal to increase education funding by $1 billion. But Pennsylvania faces a $2 billion budget deficit even without that new spending on schools, and so Wolf’s plan depends on changes in state taxes, including a new tax on gas production and increases in both personal income and sales taxes.
Those ideas are not popular with Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature and want to cut costs by overhauling public pension plans before considering new taxes.