Education disparities in Pennsylvania are some of the widest in the nation

“To do equitable practices right, you have to be intentional,” an educational consultant in Pennsylvania said.

  • Julia Agos

witf · Education disparities in Pennsylvania are some of the widest in the nation

Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps in the country between educational opportunities for white students and students of color, according to an analysis by the Philadelphia-based Research for Action think tank.

“There’s a strong narrative in our K-12 educational upbringing that segregation was a thing in the south,” said Stephen Sharp, President of the Pennsylvania School Counselors Association and counselor for the Hempfield School District in Lancaster County. “But the reality is segregation was a thing in the south, and it was a thing in the north. But the way it manifested itself particularly in education looks dramatically different.”

He blamed the disparities on what he called a poorly structured funding formula. School districts in the commonwealth rely heavily on local property taxes, which means areas with lower property values generate less money for schools than higher wealth areas.

Sharp said the effects of segregation are still seen in funding for school districts that lead to a high student to teacher ratios, limited access to advance placement classes, and lower teacher experience.

Peter Groff, former U.S. Undersecretary of Education and the first African American President of the Colorado State Senate, recommended school boards adopt equity policies aimed at sending resources to cater to students that may be struggling.

“I do think it has to be done at the school board level because if a superintendent does it – he or she pushes it – and they leave. All the sudden all that work is going to be gone,” Groff said.
He said the movement toward equity in education needs to be a collective effort, with schools, teachers, and legislatures working together.

Dr. Nikole Hollins-Sims agreed. She is an educational consultant for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network in Harrisburg. She said such polices are important to combat the tension between equity and efficiency. School districts often ask her for training — expecting an easy fix.

“It’s not a one size fits all, it’s not a quick fix. To do equitable practices right, you have to be intentional. There cannot just be a check list that you just check off to say, ‘Yes, we’ve now completed the journey.’ As we know, it is not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” she said.

She said self-reflection and understanding one’s own biases is the first and maybe the most important step toward equitable practices.

“From there you can move into, ‘What lenses am I using when I’m looking at data?’ ‘How am I interpreting disproportionate data?’ Am I saying, well, that’s just because Black students act differently or behave differently?’” she said.

Sharp said conversations about education disparities help spread awareness and elevate the community discussion.

“I think there is plenty of attention in this area and I believe there is a vested interest. Particularly now when we have such focus on the needs of our students. To continue to have these conversations, that makes me quite hopeful,” Sharp said.

But he said awareness is not action. Sharp encouraged people to check up on their school districts see to see what kind of equity policies they have in place and to contact their elected representatives to advocate for legislative reform.

Join WITF for the fourth installment of Toward Racial Justice Thursday night at 7 on WITF’s YouTube channel. Click here to see past conversations.

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