Please welcome guest blogger R. Tyson Smith, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Rutgers University Institute for Health. Starting this July he will be an American Council of Learned Societies New Faculty Fellow in the Sociology Department at Brown University. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In Philadelphia, a great divide splits the opportunities for students who attend public school from those fortunate enough to attend private schools. The differences in resources, safety, class size, and most importantly, educational attainment, are a few of the contrasts that make the two systems almost reverse images of one another.
As problematic as this divide already is, it will get even worse if Governor Tom Corbett succeeds with his proposal to cut 11% from Pennsylvania’s K-12 public school budget. These cuts, coupled with reduced federal funding, means the Philadelphia School District must slash more than $600 million from their annual budget. All public school students in Pennsylvania will suffer, but students from large urban districts—who already contend with lower per pupil spending than their suburban neighborhood—will be especially hard hit; Philadelphia’s school district will likely need to lay off almost 4,000 teachers.
Corbett’s cuts to public education have important racial implications because public schools in Philadelphia are overwhelmingly students of color whereas private schools are mostly white. Only 14% of the public school students in Philadelphia are white despite the white population of the city being nearly 50%. This disparity is largely due to the enormous cost of a private school education. Philadelphia has one of the highest poverty rates in the country—half of Philadelphia’s households have incomes less than $35,000 year—and tuition in certain private schools can run nearly $30,000 a year. The difference is compounded by the fact that middle to upper-class families commonly opt out of the public system. In the more affluent and white zip codes of Philadelphia, it is taken for granted that one’s child will attend a private school. This norm increases the contrast in racial composition between public and private and lowers the social investment in Philadelphia’s public schools by elites.
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Corbett’s cuts and their impact on Philadelphia’s racial equality go largely unnoticed by families privileged enough to pay top dollar at area private schools (on the order of $250,000 for kindergarten through 12th grade). This is despite the fact that most private schools today routinely champion “diversity” and “community service” as values central to their educational mission. One look at the websites and admission brochures of private schools (often more euphemistically called “independent schools”) show how diversity and service are integral to their striving for inclusion, equity, and justice. Some of these private schools, of course, do a better job than others in trying to address the inherent inequalities, and financial aid can make it more affordable for a certain percentage of the families; however, from looking at their publicity materials, you might think racial and class inequality had been solved. (Or perhaps this is the point?)
Nevertheless, even though certain groups can afford to look the other way, everyone should be concerned about Pennsylvania’s cuts to public education. Strong public schools provide a public good that improves the Philadelphia community as a whole—when the overall populace is better educated, everyone benefits. And regardless of where you or your children attend school, we all live and work in the same society once you are past high school age.
Moreover, Corbett’s cuts will further exacerbate the gulf in opportunities between Philadelphia’s black and white children. This is a harmful divide that should be no more the responsibility of Philadelphia families enrolled in public school than families enrolled in private school. If we want racial segregation to be a relic of the past, shouldn’t we make fighting Corbett’s cuts a priority like other collective efforts such as diversity initiatives and community-service projects?
Accepting politicians’ claims that “there is no money” and that these are tough times requiring tough decisions is today’s norm, but state budgets, like all financial decisions, are less about dollars and more about priorities. Whether it is through a severance tax on drilling during Pennsylvania natural gas boom, a stronger demand for funding which has been directed to serial wars, or redressing the lenient tax enforcement on major corporations, money could be found if public education were a true priority.
I recognize that many people feel that educational reform is beyond their reach; the myriad of issues, from No Child Left Behind to standardized tests to teacher unions, is commonly cited as obstacles to improvement. While these issues are not necessarily invalid, let’s not let them derail this conversation or prevent us from acting on what’s right in front of us—protesting Corbett’s cuts to public education. We may not be able to change inequity in education overnight, but we can do our part by stopping it from getting worse. In doing so, we serve our community, fight a divide in children’s opportunities, and help sustain a more genuine racial diversity, not the patina of diversity so often advertised.