Tuesday, July 30, 2013

School Funding Formulas

Below is the text of a letter to the editor I submitted to the Philadelphia Inquirer in response to an article about the challenges facing suburban public school districts that required them to raise property taxes and cut services. The letter seeks to point out that the challenge faced by these districts is part of a much larger issue regarding how Pennsylvania funds (or as the case may be, does not fund) its public schools.

The recent article, “School Tax Vise” (Inquirer, July 29, 2013) reveals that the funding challenges being faced by the School District of Philadelphia are also being faced many suburban districts which have had to raise school taxes and make significant cuts in order to keep their public schools operational. While currently suburban districts have been able to manage these challenges, their plight reveals a fundamental flaw in the way Pennsylvania public schools are currently being funded.

In February 2013 the Education Law Center published Funding, Formulas and Fairness, a study of how Pennsylvania funds its public schools in comparison to other states. Some troubling comparisons were revealed. On average states provide 43.5% of the total amount of money on public education; Pennsylvania spends only 35.8%. By contrast on average states expect local communities to provide approximately 44% of the funding needed through local property taxes; Pennsylvania requires local communities to raise 53% (all percentages are based on 2010 data, the most recent year available).  Furthermore, Pennsylvania is one of only 3 states that does not use a standard funding formula for allocating what state funds it does provide. Such formulas take into account community income levels, specific student needs, the number of ESL students and other factors to make sure that all public schools have the resources to provide adequate education regardless of location, income level and nature of the students. The lack of such a funding formula makes school funding a subject of political wrangling, and in particular leaves disproportionately poor districts such as Philadelphia and Chester, grossly underfunded.

Community groups such as the Education Law Center and POWER (Philadelphians Organized for Witness, Empowerment and Rebuilding) are seeking to work with political leaders, educators and like-minded citizens to establish a funding formula for all public schools, so that the constitutional mandate to provide quality public education for all Pennsylvania’s children can be fulfilled. Public education is an issue that unites both suburban and urban districts and should compel all citizens who care about our children’s futures to bring Pennsylvania in line with other states on this vital public issue.

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Strange Career of Jim Crow - 50 Years Later

In my first or second year of college I read C. Vann Woodward's classic history of the segregated South, The Strange Career of Jim Crow. I don't remember what impact it had on me back then, but for some reason I hung on to the book. I recently reread the book as part of an effort this summer to reacquaint and deepen my understanding of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950's and 1960's. 

Woodward orginally wrote the book in 1955 just after the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision calling for the desegregation of public schools. A revised edition was published ten years later in 1965; this was the edition I read. Woodward ends the second edition recounting some of the major civil rights events of 1965 including the march from Selma to Montgomery, passage of the Voting Rights Act and the riots in the Watts section of Los Angeles. (Noticeably absent was any mention of the assassination fo Malcolm X.) For Woodward the 1965 Voting Rights Act marked a legal end to Jim Crow segregation, and he ends the book on that cautiously hopeful note.

However, in his conclusion to the second edition Woodward signals his own ambivalence about the future of civil rights for people of color in the U.S. Of conditions in 1965 he writes: "For the great majority [of black people in the U.S.] the gap between the races in income, education, employment and opportunity was still very large and for many it was growing even larger. Many Southern Negores might sense tangilbe gains from a low starting point. But the majority of Negroes now lived outside the South, and three-fourths of the whole Negro population lived in the cities.There they felt themselves losing out in comparison with other Americans. Even in full possession of civil and political rights they would still face unemployment, urban decay, family deterioration, entrapment in slums and de facto segregation in housing and schooling. These were grave social problems that lay largely beyond the reach of civil rights laws and called for broader and more drastic remedies."

Reading these words nearly 50 years later in light of the Supreme Court's decision to invalidate the Voting Rights Act, the George Zimmerman verdict, the recent news that the city of Detroit will file for bankruptcy and the growing gap between haves and have-nots in this country, one can easily wonder how much has changed in that time. In his recent remarks following the George Zimmerman trial, President Obama said he believed the disparities and tensions between the races was improving; however, many have questioned how true that is for the vast majority of black people. As the response to the Zimmerman trial has made clear, there are many aspects of racism and poverty in this country that either can't be or are not being addressed by our legal, political or economic system. As Woodward said nearly 50 years ago "broader and more drastic remedies are needed."

When I consider Woodward's words I am troubled and humbled by the challenge that faces us. In the U.S. we have an economic system that promises to reward hard work and dedication, but in fact privileges those that have resources. We supposedly have a democracy, but as I have often commented in this blog our system currently operates as a plutocracy (rule of the rich) and not a democracy (rule of the people). As evidenced by the recent responses to the George Zimmerman trial, we have a system which does not seem to recognize the needs or desires of a significant percentage of the population that happens to be poor and/or non-white. When one looks at the state of affairs through the eyes of those who have been cut out of the prosperity and "recovery," Woodward's words seem quite prescient.

I don't have a crystal ball to be able to say what needs to replace our current system, but I have some ideas. What we currently call capitalism needs to be dismantled into regional economies that are more accountable to the communities in which businesses operate. Banks and businesses need to be accountable to local communities and can not take without also contributing in significant ways. Local, regional and national elections need to be publicly funded and not subject to super-PACS funded by the super rich. Basic rights need to be established for health care, quality public education, housing, and basic income. CEO salaries need to be capped at a certain ratio of the lowest paid workers in their company; all should benefit by a company's success, not just those at the top. Taxes should be waged not only on the basis of an organization's income, but also their benefit to the local community, and impact on the natural environment. Laws and policies disproportionally hurting the poor or persons of color need to be re-examined.

At the same time people and local communities need to take responsibility for their own safety and security. Violence, drugs or other things detrimental to a community's well being can best be addressed by the people in those communities. Churches, community centers, community groups and the like need to work at bringing folks of different lifestyles and cultures together to address local problems Local groups need to develop grassroots leaders who care for the people in their neighborhoods and seek to help folks solve these local problems. For democracy to work as it should, it needs to be an everyday thing, and not an event once every two or four years.

Even as I write these things these ideas seem impossible, like unrealistic pipe dreams. Yet these are the kind of broad and drastic changes Woodward saw was needed fifty years ago, and are still needed today. As the racial justice activist Anne Braden once said: "The impossible just takes a little longer to achieve." The time to get started is now.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

The Verdict - What Does It Mean - Really?

I was stunned as I listened to the verdict being read in the George Zimmerman trial last night – not guilty of any wrong doing in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Really? As I listened to the ABC commentator explain the meaning of the verdict, I realized how many of the real issues in this incident were never up for discussion. The commentator explained that at issue was whether Mr. Zimmerman felt his life was in jeopardy, thereby justifying his shooting Trayvon in “self-defense.”

But there were so many things that make this case wrong, and yet were not discussed, such as:

-             Why in this country is a person deemed “suspicious” simply because he is black and male?

-             What justification is there for a man carrying a gun on the street that can be used to threaten and kill another human being?

-             What justification is there for vigilante-ism in which a townwatch guard can ignore police calls to leave the “suspicious” person alone and let the police investigate the matter?

-              Why in this  country are there gated communities that create an atmosphere of fear and trust leading to tragedies like this?

-             How extensive are the inadequacies of a legal system that can exclude these larger issues from the case, and focus on minute details and lawyers’ gamesmanship in a search for the truth?

-            How can a case like this be prosecuted and any mention of the racial and class dynamics involved be excluded from the courtroom?

Regardless of what happened the night that George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin had their altercation, this verdict sends a very troubling message. I am reminded of an African-American women in one of my courses years ago, who said that when she learned she was pregnant with a boy, she wept for fear of what he would go through in this society. I am reminded of a poem written by another student more recently describing the ways in which a child’s life is circumscribed and threatened simply because he is black. I reminded of one of my middle-aged African American colleagues who shared that when he walks into stores or on the streets of the predominantly white suburbs, he does not feel safe.

Many white folks would dismiss these fears as false perceptions. However, when you look at the rates of poverty, incarceration and premature violent death, those fears have pretty solid grounding. The death of Trayvon Martin reinforces those fears, which in turn gives rise to deep and profound anger and distrust. While many might rightly say our society has come a long way from days of Jim Crow segregation, lynchings and a racist justice system, this case and the issues surrounding it remind us of how far we have yet to go.

Unfortunately for the Martin family, as well as George Zimmerman, this trial had much more to do with larger meanings and symbolism, than it did about the tragic event that happened on Feb 26, 2012. If there is one good thing to point to in this situation, it is that outside the courthouse and around the country as people protested and grieved the verdict, there were many white people in the crowd protesting with their black brothers and sisters. To my black friends who may be deeply angered and upset by the outcome of this trial, all I can say is while I cannot begin to understand what it is like to be black in America in 2013, I stand with you.