PHILADELPHIA — At Martin Luther King High, a hulking half-full school here, there aren’t enough textbooks to go around. If teachers want to make a photocopy, they have to buy paper themselves. Though an overwhelming majority of students are living in poverty, no social worker is available to help. Private donations allow for some dance and music classes, but they serve just 60 of the school’s 1,200 students.
At Lower Merion High, 10 miles away in a suburb of stately stone homes, copy paper and textbooks are available but are rarely necessary: Each student has a school-provided laptop. A pool allows for lifeguarding classes, and an arts wing hosts courses in photography, ceramics, studio art and jewelry making. The campus has a social worker.
While there always have been inequalities among the nation’s public schools, the gap in spending between public schools in the poorest and most-affluent communities has grown during the past decade.
Nowhere is that gap wider than in Pennsylvania, according to federal data. School districts with the highest poverty rates here receive one-third fewer state and local tax dollars, per pupil, than the most affluent districts. This spring, the new governor has outlined an ambitious plan to address the inequities, but it faces opposition at the statehouse. At the same time, a lawsuit over inadequate school funding is making its way through the courts, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called for change.
“When the state systematically, significantly underfunds children who weren’t born with a silver spoon in their mouths, something is wrong with that picture,” Duncan said last month at a Philadelphia elementary school.
Spending on school operations — not including school construction or debt payments — ranges from less than $8,700 per student in a coal country district, one of the state’s lowest-achieving, to more than $26,600 in a tony Philadelphia suburb.
Philadelphia falls in the middle, spending about $13,000 per student to operate schools, compared with about $23,000 per child in Lower Merion, according to state data.
Tom Wolf, the new governor of Pennsylvania, wants greater parity.
The chief executive of a kitchen-cabinet business who had never held elected office, Wolf campaigned last year on promises to tax the gas industry to raise money for education. The strategy paid off: Polls showed that voters, after watching public schools sustain deep cuts, considered education the top issue in the race. In November, as Republicans won sweeping victories across the country, Wolf became the nation’s only Democrat to unseat a Republican governor.
“There was a wide recognition that the system was broken,” Wolf said in a recent interview, adding that cuts to public school funding were both an economic and moral mistake. “One of the great civil injustices is to say we’re going to make your education dependent on your Zip code.”
Advocates and teachers have cheered his proposal to increase education funding by $1 billion. But Pennsylvania faces a $2 billion budget deficit even without that new spending on schools, and so Wolf’s plan depends on changes in state taxes, including a new tax on gas production and increases in both personal income and sales taxes.
Those ideas are not popular with Republican lawmakers, who control both chambers of the state legislature and want to cut costs by overhauling public pension plans before considering new taxes.
GOP leaders point out that the amount of money devoted to education isn’t the only variable that matters; just as important is how those dollars are spent.
“We’ll do our best to make sure we provide all our schools with the resources we need to educate our children,” said the Pennsylvania Senate’s majority leader, Jake Corman (R-Centre County). But, he added, “What makes us think that we can’t do more with less?”
For students at King High School, it’s hard to imagine having less.
“Many students don’t feel like there’s anything for them here,” senior Kevin Ramsey said.
In 2011, after posting low test scores for years, King became a “promise academy,” an approach to turning around schools that includes a longer school day and a rich set of extracurricular offerings — such as rowing, archery or a poetry club — meant to entice reluctant students.
But after one year, budget cuts put an end to the extra learning time and the enrichment activities, Principal William C. Wade said. King also absorbed hundreds of students from a rival school that was closed to save money.
Wade said the cuts have made it more difficult to transform King. Some class sizes have risen into the 40s. All students are from low-income families; one-third read proficiently, and half graduate on time.
“We don’t gripe,” Wade said. “I think we’re doing well with what we have.”
Philadelphia has gained national attention for its cutting of librarians, counselors, nurses, summer school and other programs and staff. But many districts are quietly feeling the same squeeze, including in poor rural and suburban communities.
Part of the problem, according to Wolf and education advocates, is that Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts rely more heavily than the national average on local property taxes. Though poor communities often tax themselves at higher rates than wealthier communities, their low tax base means they can’t raise as much money as wealthier towns.
Advocates say inequities deepened in 2011, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s first year in office. About $1 billion in education spending evaporated as Corbett not only cut state funding, but also did not replace federal stimulus funds that had expired.
At the same time, Corbett scrapped a school funding formula that aimed to send more state dollars to schools serving high numbers of needy students. Poorer districts couldn’t fill the hole, and more than 20,000 education jobs were lost.
In November, a coalition of parents, school districts and the Pennsylvania NAACP sued, contending that the state’s school funding system violated the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Ninety-five percent of the state’s school districts didn’t have enough money to provide students with the education they needed to meet state academic standards in 2006, according to a study completed that year at the request of state lawmakers. The state’s schools needed an additional $4.4 billion, the study found, and the poorest districts needed funding increases of close to 40 percent.
“We recognize there will always be differences in what is spent,” said Maura McInerney, an attorney at the Education Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the plaintiffs. “What we’re asking for is that every child have a chance to meet state standards.”
Political observers in Pennsylvania were surprised by the breadth of Wolf’s budget proposals when he unveiled a fundamental restructuring of the state’s taxes in March.
Wolf proposed a new 5 percent tax on the state’s natural gas industry, which he says would raise $1 billion for education.
He also proposed cutting business taxes and spending billions on property tax relief that he says would particularly benefit poor school districts. To pay for that relief, he proposed to raise personal income and sales taxes.
And he wants Pennsylvania to adopt a fair school funding formula, as the state is one of a handful without one.
Corman, the Senate’s Republican majority leader, said he hopes to conclude budget season by June 30 without raising taxes. The fairness of the current school funding system depends on where you sit, he said. Lawmakers representing well-to-do areas are likely to object to Wolf’s plan, he said, because it would send more of their money out of their communities.
States on average spend 15.6 percent less in their poorest schools, up from 10.8 percent a decade ago, according to federal data.
“School funding is the most political thing that we do, and it’s not necessarily Republican or Democrat, it’s all politics is local,” Corman said. “It’s what your school districts are getting.”
But the nation’s poorest communities don’t always get less. Nearly two dozen states, including both red and blue states, spend more in their poorest schools than they spend in their most affluent.
Tori Klevan, a senior and student journalist at Lower Merion High, scrutinized her school’s budget, looking for a story. Then she looked at Philadelphia school budgets.
The differences floored her.
“I realized students at a school 3
She plans to spend a week in a Philadelphia high school to make a documentary about the differences she finds. “I want more people to know about this,” she said. “I can’t believe more people don’t know.”
Clarification: An earlier version of this article said that Wolf had never previously held public office; he had never previously held a publicly elected office. He served as Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Revenue from 2007 to 2008. The article has been updated.