Last month, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan penned an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer discussing how inequitable school funding in Pennsylvania has hurt Philadelphia. He powerfully frames this inequity as a matter of justice, emphasizing that wealthier communities usually spend more on their schools than low-income communities. He wrote:
Few question that education is the key to American growth and prosperity—yet too many systems value some children’s futures more than others.
I thank Secretary Duncan for highlighting this issue and drawing attention to the educational challenges of our city. But while fair funding is critical, we need to do more. Without policies that drive our schools towards excellence, we’ll never achieve the educational justice we all seek.
Despite the caustic rhetoric that too often clouds discussions on education, there is broad, bipartisan support for fixing school funding in Pennsylvania. Unions, business leaders, religious organizations and community activists have formed a coalition, the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, to advocate for an adequate and equitable system to support education. The coalition is proposing a system grounded in four key principles: accuracy, stability, shared responsibility and accountability.
But while this momentum is encouraging, it’s not enough.
Research shows that increased funding doesn’t guarantee better student outcomes—it’s not just how much you spend, but how you spend it. Some schools—regardless of changes in funding—simply fail to meet the needs of kids, year after year.
Unfortunately, Philadelphia has far too many schools in that category. Out of the 16,000 students attending 22 of the city’s lowest performing district and charter schools, less than a quarter are on grade level in reading and math; barely half graduate high school. Only 17 students total in these 22 schools—or 0.7% of all their seniors—were college-ready last year, according to SAT and ACT scores. And this isn’t just a result of recent funding woes. Proficiency at these schools was slightly lower a decade ago.
By any measure, these schools are letting their students down. Yet this year, the district will spend an estimated $150 million running them. Policymakers should realize that pouring more money into these underperforming schools while failing to meaningfully intervene is also an injustice.
Duncan writes, “In too many places nationwide, parents’ income and real estate prices predict the quality of public education.” I couldn’t agree more, but while equitable funding is a critical piece of changing that, it’s insufficient. Only by pairing fair funding with meaningful accountability for school performance can we give all students, in Philadelphia and elsewhere, the effective education they so richly deserve.