Erie Pennsylvania’s Schools Are a Canary in the Coal Mine of Education

Jeff Bryant

Jay Badams has reached the limits of his patience.

As superintendent of Erie, Pennsylvania schools since 2009, he’s dealt with the chronic underfunding of his schools for years. Every year, he and his staff grapple with ever more painful budget cuts. He and his staff are sick and tired of meetings on what to cut next. Should it be libraries? Athletics? Art and music programs? His repeated appeals to state lawmakers to come to Erie’s rescue have had little effect.

When Badams and his colleagues calculated the district’s budget this past spring, they found that closing four of the district’s high schools could save two to three million dollars.

But the decision to consider closing Erie public high schools is more of an “ethical decision” rather than just about the dollars and cents, Badams tells me in a phone conversation.

Because many of the school districts that surround Erie are so much better funded, students from the closed Erie high schools could transfer to schools offering a far better educational experience. The neighboring Harbor Creek district, for instance, spends $1,360 more on each student than Erie can.

“We have only one competitive high school offering a single track in science, technology, engineering and math,” Badams told me. “Competitive programs at high schools in some of the surrounding districts have multiple tracks, extensive foreign language instruction and other electives—it’s like comparing a goat track to a state-of-the-art indoor-outdoor stadium.”

But is closing the high schools the right thing to do?

This is the ethical question many more communities are likely to face.

chools in low-income communities in many states don’t have the resources to give students access to opportunities that are available in wealthier areas. This well known fact is most often talked about in the passive voice, as though it’s a “new, unavoidable normal.”

But it’s important to know who to blame for the financial calamities.

“The problem is high reliance on local funding in the state,” Michael Churchill an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, told me in a phone interview. “Places with a poor local tax base like Erie can’t generate enough revenue.”

Erie suffers from a constellation of factors making it difficult to generate sufficient revenue from local property taxes to support its schools. Almost 28 percent of Erie residents live below the poverty level, more than double the state average of 13.3 percent. Median home value is also significantly below the state average, $83,800 vs. $164,700. And because the city is a county seat, and is populated with numerous government-related facilities, so 30 percent of the city’s real estate is made up of tax-exempt properties.

The district’s student demographics add to the challenge. Eighty percent of students are classified as economically disadvantaged. The district’s special education enrollment is 17.6 percent compared to the state’s 15.6 percent.

Erie is also a refugee destination, taking in thousands of families from countries experiencing conflict such as Bhutan, Bosnia, and Iraq, and many children arrive with a background of childhood trauma. Erie has seen its refugee population increase by nearly 800 percent.

But it’s not like Erie’s financial challenges haven’t been recognized by the state.

In 2015, State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale’s office issued a statement noting, “The district continues to face serious financial challenges that are exacerbated by the lack of a fair state funding formula and dramatic increases in tuition payments to charter schools.”

An analysis by the federal government in 2015 found that Pennsylvania’s school districts have the most inequitable spending in the nation for poor students. While the state’s [average] per-pupil spending was $12,529 in low-poverty districts, it was only $9,387 in high-poverty districts, a difference of over 25 percent.

A revision of the funding formula enacted in 2016 helps, according to Churchill. But the new formula ignores existing inequities. “It only addresses how new funding is distributed. It never asks what schools need in order to meet state standards,” he writes. (emphasis original)

Even by the state’s own revised formula, according to a spreadsheet Churchill shared with me, Erie is still underfunded by about $36 million, or $2,651 per student.

And then there are the charter schools.

The district’s financial review noted that the “overall impact [of charters] on the school district’s budget for the 2015-16 school year was over $22 million. For every 100 students enrolled in a brick-and-mortar or cyber charter school, the impact is $1 million in cost for the school district.”

Tyler Titus, a clinical therapist in Erie who works with children in the foster care system, is so concerned about the harmful effects of underfunding on kids’ well-being that he is running for Erie school board. “What I see is a compounding of trauma for kids in our community,” he told me – trauma from poverty, from violence, and other circumstances.

All these economic educational hardships, which are well documented, might sound extreme. But it’s not as if Erie is a special case.

A 2015 analysis by the federal government found schools that serve poor kids are increasingly financially disadvantaged nationwide, while schools for better-off children are increasingly given a funding advantage by state and local lawmakers.

The inequity is stark, with the richest 25 percent of school districts getting 15.6 percent more funds per student than the poorest 25 percent of school districts—”a national funding gap of $1,500 per student, on average,” according to the report.

Pennsylvania’s funding gap was the worst in the nation—33 percent.

And the funding gap is getting worse. Based on the data from the federal government’s analysis cited above , the gap grew 44 percent between 2001 and 2011.

According to a 2017 analysis by the Education Law Center, 21 states have “regressive” funding formulas that provide less funding to school districts with higher concentrations of low‐income students. “Only a handful of states—Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Massachusetts—have generally high funding levels and also provide significantly more funding to districts where student poverty is highest,” the center finds.

Asked if he thought this funding inequity was deliberate, Churchill said, “It’s deliberate in the sense that political leaders are aware of the problem and won’t do anything about it.”

Better-funded districts simply don’t want more money going to less well-off districts because it would mean money out of their budgets, Churchill explained. “And even better funded schools in Pennsylvania aren’t getting enough money.”

“Correcting the inequity would take redistribution of current funds, which is a dirty word.” Badams explained. “Our state representatives would have to convince their peers to do something ‘special’ for Erie.”

No doubt charter schools help perpetuate this “everyone out for himself” thinking.

“I see the draw to charters,” Titus said. “Charters can be good for some kids, but sometimes parents just see them as a lesser of two evils. What’s forgotten is that when we provide for some, we can take away from the many.”

In addition, recent analyses of the state’s education funding show a chronic racial bias. It’s not clear whether the new funding formula will be any better. But, “to say there’s not a problem with racial bias and prejudice is a fallacy,” said Titus.

At this point, Badams and the district now lean toward closing just two of the high schools and consolidating the remaining students into the two remaining schools.

“My hope,” Badams told me, “is that we can combine the high school consolidation with some innovations in programming that resemble more of a magnet school model with more choice.

“But even with these changes, we’re still heading for financial insolvency,” he added.

Cross-posted from The Progressive

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