How ZIP Codes Determine the Quality of a Child’s Education

How ZIP Codes Determine the Quality of a Child's Education

ALLENTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Students at Allentown’s Harrison-Morton Middle School look forward to hearing the squeaky wheels of the technology cart approaching their classroom, though the iPads they hold may not be the latest models and time with them is limited. A luxury in Allentown schools, such technology has become a necessity for many suburban students — something they’re accustomed to tapping at-will and often. Technology is one of the many things that separate students in Pennsylvania ‘s school districts, where wealth equates to quality. Food is another. That’s why the staff at Donegan Elementary School on Bethlehem’s South Side sends students home with a bag of healthy snacks on weekends. Because clothing also can divide students who have from those who have not, the Bethlehem Area School District installed a washer and dryer at Donegan, ensuring children have access to clean clothes. Language sets students or schools apart, too. And so do ZIP codes, education reformers say, effectively segregating students by income and race. Where you live determines what type of education you receive in the Lehigh Valley and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. Where the tax base is high, the educational offerings tend to be many. Where it is low, the options decline. The gap isn’t just between districts but sometimes between schools in the same district. Joan Preston, who has been teaching science in Allentown for more than two decades, tries to put her Harrison-Morton students on equal footing with those in the bordering Salisbury Township, East Penn, Parkland and Whitehall-Coplay districts. But she doesn’t have the resources to get them all there. “I want to provide the same science experience that their counterparts get,” Preston said, “but it’s a challenge with our budget.” This disparity, said Maura McInerney, an attorney with the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, comes down to one thing: the property tax structure that Pennsylvania uses to fund education. Because the system relies more heavily on local taxes than on state and federal money, the scales tip in favor of wealthier suburban districts. Urban districts, which are educating a disproportionate number of low-income and minority students, don’t have the tax base to provide the same quality of education, McInerney and others say. “I want to provide the same science experience that their counterparts get, but it’s a challenge with our budget.” They often can’t afford to replace old schools, fix heating systems, add air conditioning, buy new technology or hire the additional teachers needed to reduce class sizes, address language issues and provide instructional support. “It’s inadequate,” McInerney said. “We have systematic racial segregation that has become more entrenched over the decades.” The longer it takes to come up with a new funding system, the more children will be hurt by the system’s inadequacy and inequity, she added. The problem is particularly severe in Pennsylvania, which Rutgers University education professor and researcher Bruce D. Baker flagged along with Illinois as the worst states for education inequality. In a 2014 report for the Center for American Progress, Baker found that the Allentown and Reading school districts were among the country’s most disparate. “Quite possibly, the nation’s most fiscally disadvantaged local public school districts of significant size lie to the north and west of Philadelphia, in the districts of Reading and Allentown,” Baker wrote. “These districts sit at the bottom of the revenue distribution and serve very high need student populations.” Neither, he said, has the ability to raise enough money from local taxes to meet student needs. The result is racial and economic segregation, Baker and McInerney said. If allowed to continue, the uphill climb will only get steeper. No one is more familiar with that reality than Allentown Superintendent Thomas Parker, whose district is “always one emergency from disaster.” While tax increases and belt-tightening have become routine for Lehigh Valley school districts, none has been more financially stressed than Allentown, the area’s biggest and poorest. Desperate to fund its budget and erase a $21 million deficit this year, Allentown raised taxes by 1.75%; left vacant 28 paraprofessional, five teacher and two security officer positions; and then begged charter schools to collectively accept $6 million less — which they rejected. But none of those drastic measures will bridge the disparity between Allentown and its neighbors. At best, they will only keep the gap from getting wider. “Quite possibly, the nation’s most fiscally disadvantaged local public school districts of significant size lie to the north and west of Philadelphia, in the districts of Reading and Allentown.” Consider that Allentown spent about $14,854 to educate each of its students in the 2017-18 school year, with about 33% of it coming from local taxes. In the neighboring Salisbury Township School District, $22,841 was spent on each student, with 73% coming from local taxes. Local taxes alone generated $16,666 for each Salisbury student, surpassing the revenue Allentown received from local, state and federal sources combined. Adding state and federal money to the equation, Salisbury had $8,000 more to spend on each of its students than Allentown had. Drawing a correlation between Allentown’s financial state and the quality of education it can provide, Parker wrote in an opinion piece in The Morning Call in May: “It cannot be the narrative of this city, this region, this district, that Allentown students somehow deserve less.” The Morning Call looked at the disparity between and within districts, with visits to Harrison-Morton Middle School in Allentown and Salisbury Middle School in Salisbury Township. It also spent time in two third-grade classrooms in Bethlehem elementary schools: Donegan and Hanover. The outcome backed up what Parker, McInerney and Baker contend: That poverty creates a sharp educational disadvantage. Education equity basically involves determining how much money districts need and where the money will come from, said Justin Silverstein, co-CEO at Augenblick Palaich and Associates, a Colorado firm that helps states design funding formulas. “One of the key things about making two communities next to each other equitable is making sure both those communities have the capacity to […]

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November 12, 2019