Their feet start flying, and they look more like birds than long-limbed humans. They’re students, rushing to make the times they’ll need for the relay later that weekend.
And they’re running in the hallways of their high school.
Having nothing but a path of dirt (and occasionally, mud) for a track, Penn Wood High School is the William Penn School District’s upper-secondary school. Over 80 percent of the district’s students live at or below the poverty level, and per-pupil spending stands at a mere $11,000 a year for general education and $26,000 a year for special education.
The district of 5,140 students has one of the highest property taxes in Delaware County, yet it is one of the lowest-funded school districts in the area.
Sick of school-funding disparities within the county, the William Penn district, five other districts, the NAACP’s Pennsylvania State Conference, and other supporters filed a lawsuit against the state in 2014. After a few years of the case working its way through the courts, Commonwealth Court heard opening statements in the case March 7.
In William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., the plaintiffs charged that the governor and other state officials had failed “to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a system of public education that gives all children in Pennsylvania the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards and thrive in today’s world.”
William Penn Superintendent Jane Harbert said the plaintiffs’ goal is “an equal funding formula.”
Currently, local tax revenue is one of the largest factors in Pennsylvania’s education funding. William Penn serves the communities of Aldan, Colwyn, Darby, East Lansdowne, Lansdowne, and Yeadon. There is a lack of businesses within school district borders, and so most property-tax revenue is residential and from primarily low-value homes.
Whether the state should increase its share of funding “is a policy question for the political branches,” not one for the judiciary, said Chief Deputy Attorney General John Knorr during a September 2016 trial before the state Supreme Court.
“No individual child has any specific right to an education at all” under the constitution, Knorr said. Instead, he reasoned, the legislature must only set up “a system.”
The Supreme Court ordered the Commonwealth Court to hold the March hearing on whether state officials are violating the state’s constitution by failing to fund public education.
In an effort to alleviate funding hardships, William Penn outsources busing services, cafeteria workers, and custodians, which saves millions of dollars for the district, allowing it to hire workers without the expensive addition of benefits, the superintendent said.
Because of budget cuts this past June, middle and high school students can use their libraries only one or two days per week. Four counselors serve William Penn’s eight elementary schools, and the district was forced to furlough and eliminate positions for the current school year.
“As a guidance counselor, when I’m scheduling classes, I’m trying to give people what they want, but there’s not enough teachers, and the class sizes are too big,” said Lisa Cinquino, head of the guidance department at the high school. “No one could take accounting this year because they cut [former business teacher] Ms. Murphy’s position and never replaced it.”
Robert Cherry, the band director at the high school since 2002, echoed those sentiments.
“I’m the high school band director, but I also have to be the high school choral director, which is normally two positions,” Cherry said. “We don’t have enough money to teach more classes. Even more so than the rooms and technology we don’t have, it’s the people. There’s just not enough people.”
But even if there were enough people, where would they teach?
“Our choir room is an in-school suspension room now,” said the band director, one of a handful of teachers who have to share classroom space with other educators. Some teachers don’t have a classroom at all and wheel a cart from room to room.
District officials worry about what they’ll soon be surviving off of day to day.
“My biggest fear is that we will be just like Chester Upland,” Harbert, the superintendent, said, “if we don’t get fair funding or find another source of income.”
The financially struggling Chester Upland district has been state-funded for 10 to 12 years, and is under “receivership,” overseen by a chief recovery officer appointed by a county judge. Harbert believes the same thing could happen to the William Penn district in to two or three years if nothing changes.
Succeeding without support
Despite these struggles, William Penn students continue to surpass expectations. Girls’ track, the speech and debate team, and an elementary school ballroom-dancing team recently have won accolades.
The high school band placed fourth in last year’s championship and recently was invited to perform live on Fox29 during a showcase of the “very best of Delco.”
But drum major Tierra Hudson and the more than 80 other members of the band see the limitations of the district’s finances.
“We’ll go against these other bands — for example, Marple Newtown,” Hudson, an 18-year-old senior, said. “And they’ll pick these really elaborate themes. They have the money to have these synthesizers, whereas all of our sounds come from our mouths and fingers. … We can’t have that many props.”
Hudson added, “We do get pretty far with our own talent, so imagine us if we had that money, that funding for our endeavors.”
History of unequal funding
So why have the William Penn district and other school districts been unequally funded?
“It’s the way the state has decided to fund education,” said Harbert, the superintendent. “They’ve decided to ride it on the back of taxpayers.”
However, there are other theories for the funding gap. Referencing a study on racial disparity in school funding, the Rev. Greg Holston of the interfaith advocacy group POWER told the Philadelphia Public School Notebook in 2016 that “racism is at the core of this fair-funding issue.” Holston said he means “a devaluing of black children, of Latino children, of children of color, [the idea that] simply because of the color of their skin, they don’t have the same worth or the same value as every other child in the state of Pennsylvania.”
In the William Penn district, 98 percent of pupils are black, and combined, 2 percent are white and Hispanic.
It’s no secret: Kids in well-funded districts perform better than those in low-funded school districts, the latter of which tend to serve more minority-heavy communities. And on average, kids in poorly funded districts receive nearly $88,000 less per classroom than kids in well-funded districts. An extra $88,000 could fund one smartboard ($6,000), 25 laptop computers ($12,500), one teacher’s aide ($31,500), one school mural project ($5,000), and one newly renovated lab ($33,000).
But William Penn doesn’t have an extra $88,000. It’s counting on its lawsuit to change the state’s school-funding system.
Success for all
Should all things go in their favor, William Penn and other plaintiff school districts could be seeing a big payout. The Title I Delaware County school district could get as much as $8 million added to its current $92 million budget.
“There is so much we can do” with that money, said Penn Wood High School principal Hyeseon Judy Lee. The list includes keeping the libraries open every day, offering more classes, hiring more teachers, and restoring heat in the buildings.
“It’s too damn cold to learn,” Hudson, the senior drum major, said. “If it’s the wintertime, there’s no heat. The teachers expect you to focus on their lessons; I’m trying to focus on my toes not falling off.”
School officials are hopeful the court will continue to support public education with a positive ruling.
But if the district doesn’t win the case, it will again have to make cuts.
As for Hudson, she’s now dreaming about postgraduation.
“I would really love to go to Spelman College,” the historically black college in Atlanta, in December.
Hudson is a testament to one thing that the superintendent continually stresses.
“It might not be in the form of a Chromebook, or a beautiful building, but I believe if you really want to … we will give you everything to be successful,” she said.
And that’s all students need to keep running. Even if, for now, it’s in the halls.