Reading, Pennsylvania: A Microcosm of Today’s Savage Inequalities

NEA Today has just published a short, eloquent, and very profound article on an old, old subject.  In 1991, Jonathan Kozol called this problem “savage inequalities.”

The subject of Amanda Litvinof’s piece in NEA Today is Reading, Pennsylvania, once an industrial community an hour and a half west of Philadelphia:  “Reading is one of the nation’s poorest cities. It’s also one of the most poorly funded school districts in America.  Like students in disadvantaged communities across the nation—who are disproportionately students of color—kids in Reading suffer from a school finance policy that does not come close to providing them with education resources on par with those of their wealthier peers.  Tour Reading’s 19 schools and you’ll see mostly aging buildings with broken floor tiles, leaky ceilings, sprouting patches of mold, students crammed into too-small classrooms and feral cats squatting under classroom trailers.  One high school has a room full of broken microscopes, and no money to repair them.  One large-group instruction room is completely off limits after a broken pipe left it spattered with sewage.  The drama teacher now conducts class in the hallway.  But even more detrimental is what you don’t see.  Reading School District lost 200 educators, including 120 education support professionals in 2011-2012 when statewide education funding plummeted by $1.1 billion under then-Gov. Tom Corbett.  Incredibly, the cuts were four times greater in Pennsylvania’s 50 poorest districts ($532 per student) than in the state’s wealthiest districts ($113 per student).  In practical terms, those cuts left Riverside Elementary’s Ms. Sherman with a class of more than 30 kindergartners and no aid.”

Litvinof interviews Sherman: “One of my close friends went to a wealthier district after working in Reading for 10 years.  At the same step on the pay scale she was earning $16,000 more per year and had a kindergarten class of 18 with an aide, while I had a class of 30 kindergartners all on my own.  It’s a big difference.”  Litvinof takes the trouble to be sure there are no misconceptions here about leveling down: “Let’s be clear: The kids in Wyomissing should have smaller class sizes, challenging academics, and extra curriculars like sports, band and orchestra.  They should have access to a nurse and a counselor and all the academic supports they need.  But students in Reading should have those things, too.”

Describing an interview with Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University and manager of the blog School Finance 101, Litvinof writes: “We know the strategies that help close achievement gaps: Lower class sizes. A broad curriculum. Attraction and retention of highly qualified teachers. But these strategies are unobtainable without stable, adequate, and equitable funding.”  According to Baker, “Reading is a classic case of savage inequality.  It’s a school district that is incredibly poor in terms of its own tax base, it has high-needs students, and it exists in a state that appears not to give a [expletive].” “The data show that we’ve never provided sustained, adequate, and equitable funding in any of our disadvantaged communities.”

There is really no disagreement among experts on the subject of the need for adequate and equitably distributed state funding of public schools.  A long shelf of books documents the problem.  What follow are just a handful of examples:

From Jonathan Kozol in Savage Inequalities (1991): “‘In a country where there is no distinction of class,’ Lord Acton wrote of the United States 130 years ago, ‘a child is not born to the station of its parents but with an indefinite claim to all the prizes that can be won by thought and labor.  It is in conformity with the theory of equality… to give as near as possible to every youth an equal state in life.’  ‘Americans,’ he said, ‘are unwilling that any should be deprived in childhood of the means of competition.’ It is hard to read these words today without a sense of irony and sadness.  Denial of ‘the means of competition’ is perhaps the single most consistent outcome of the education offered to poor children in the schools of our large cities….” (p 83)

From the National Research Council in Making Money Matter, edited by Helen Ladd (1999): “That middle-and upper-income households can move out of high-taxation areas makes it possible for them to avoid sharing the burden of financing the local share of education for those left behind.  In particular, as households and firms have moved out of central cities in search of lower land prices in the suburbs or more favorable business conditions in other states or countries, they have often left behind them smaller tax bases and concentrations of economically disadvantaged and difficult-to-educate students.  The result is widening disparities among the capacities of school districts to generate local funds to meet the educational needs of their students…. While assistance from the federal and state governments helps to offset these disparities, large differences remain, both within and across states.” (p 20)

From Peter Schrag in Final Test: The Battle for Adequacy in America’s Schools (2003): Schrag quotes Alondra Jones, a student from San Francisco’s Balboa High School in her deposition filed in California’s Williams case: “It makes you feel less about yourself, you know, like you sitting here in a class where you have to stand up because there’s not enough chairs, and you see rats in the buildings, the bathrooms is nasty…. Like I said, I visited Marin Academy, and these students, if they want to sit on the floor that’s because they choose to.  And that just makes me feel less about myself because it’s like the state don’t care about public schools…. It really makes me feel bad about myself.” (p 21)

From James E. Ryan in Five Miles Away, A World Apart (2010): “(I)t is worth noticing that those who embrace adequacy as a goal have essentially abandoned any attempt to link the financial fates of poor and rich districts.  Adequacy presupposes that some districts will be able to provide an education that is more than adequate.  Thus, instead of seeking to ensure that all districts have access to the same pool of resources, which was the goal of fiscal neutrality, those in favor of adequacy accept the inevitable inequalities that will follow.  Indeed, some seek to make a virtue of necessity by arguing that adequacy is superior to equity precisely because it is less threatening to property-rich districts.  In the words of one commentator, adequacy is less costly ‘for the elites who derive the greatest benefits from the existing inequalities, because adequacy does not threaten their ability to retain a superior position.'” (p. 176)

From Linda Darling-Hammond in The Flat World and Education (2010) : “The onus of NCLB (No Child Left Behind) is on individual schools to raise test scores.  However, the law does not address the profound educational inequalities that plague our nation.  Despite a 3 to 1 ratio between high-and low-spending schools in most states, multiplied further by inequalities across states, neither NCLB nor other federal education policies require that states demonstrate progress toward adequate funding or equitable opportunities to learn… To survive and prosper, our society must finally renounce its obstinate commitment to educational inequality and embrace full and ambitious opportunities to learn for all of our children.” (p. 309)

Earlier this summer, as the Education Law Center released its fourth annual report on the challenges to school funding equity across the states, its press release declared: “The picture is bleak: the vast majority of states are not funding public schools adequately or equitably; the fiscal retrenching connected with the Great Recession has not been reversed; and at-risk students are not being provided with the resources they need to succeed.”

Amanda Litvinov succinctly summarizes our long, long problem in her piece on Reading, Pennsylvania: “Most lawmakers agree that low-income students, like all children, deserve a great public school—until its time to pay for it.”

We like to think of this as a thorny fiscal problem, but in reality it is a much deeper matter of public morality.  Here are the words—timely today but written over a quarter of a century ago—by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin, the prophetic pastor of New York’s Riverside Church: “We comfort ourselves with the thought that because our intentions are good (nobody gets up in the morning and says, ‘Whom can I oppress today?’), we do not have to examine the consequences of our actions.  As a matter of fact, many of us are even eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. And there’s the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for the injustice.  And that is why President Reagan and so many business leaders today are promoting charity: it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality.” (Credo, p. 64)

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2 thoughts on “Reading, Pennsylvania: A Microcosm of Today’s Savage Inequalities

  1. Thank you for this powerful piece of writing. It is maddening to see what has happened in America over the years. What we are dealing with is a form of Jim Crow, subtle and unstated, but its effects are the same: Keep people of black and brown color out of the way of white privilege and competitive advantage. We see it in our prisons and in our schools. I don’t know what’s going to turn this ship around, but the USS America is heading for the falls!

  2. Pingback: Reading, Pennsylvania: A Microcosm of Today’s Savage Inequalities | PAChurchesAdvocacy.org

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