Erie, Pennsylvania has public schools that have been underfunded for years. And today, the school district is in a dire situation. Erie’s story raises broader questions about education equality, and to what extent kids can be successful when they go to schools with limited resources. In this episode, you’ll hear from a range of people — including parents, teachers, students, and school officials — about what the impact has been.
Imagine living in a city where the public schools have been underfunded for years, and school officials threaten to close all of its high schools and bus students out to the surrounding suburban school districts.
This was the nightmare scenario in Erie, a city of about 100,000 residents, in the far northwestern corner of Pennsylvania.
School buildings are crumbling, spending on extra-curricular and sports programs has been slashed, and there’s a $10 million school budget deficit.
The state came in with a one-time bailout of cash to keep Erie schools afloat, but the district still faces similar struggles.
For now, school district officials have backed off closing all four of the high schools. They’re planning, instead, on consolidating and shutting down two of the high schools for the 2017-2018 school year.
One of the schools on the chopping block is East High School.
At the end of the high school basketball season, the East Warriors played the General McLane Lancers, a suburban team. In the stands, there were some parents and cheerleaders for both sides rooting on their respected squads. By halftime, the Warriors were down only two points. But in the second half, the team struggled to keep up. The General McLane Lancers pulled ahead, and won 72 to 58.
As the gym was clearing out, a few spectators weighed in about what’s happened to Erie’s schools.
Arnold Johnson came to the game to watch his grandson, Griffin, play for East High. Griffin is a senior, but Johnson also has other grandchildren who attend Erie public schools.
“I’d like to see it be funded to where it is not a stressful thing for the families. That’s got to be stressful for the whole community. Who wants to live in a community where there isn’t good schools?”
Johnson said he expects schools in Erie to prepare his grandchildren for college and for the future.
“If you go to a school and you don’t have adequate funding, you’re not going to have all the facilities that you need for your track team, for your baseball team, for your chess team. For kids who want to do things outside of sports, acting or anything that’s going to further them in the future — it all takes money. It appears that there is a little imbalance in the funding. Some schools have more available to them than others. People need to understand these are our greatest assets, our children. This is our future. The funds ought to be distributed equally.”
After the game, Jim Campbell, a suburban parent, also shared his perspective about the funding crisis.
“My kids and I just had this conversation on the way down here; because they were mentioning how it’s kind of depressing coming into the city. We live just a little bit south of the city, and I said we live in the General McLane school district, which is the second richest per capita in all of Erie County. I said ‘You kids, you’ve been handed a situation in our school that you have privileges and academic availability, just many advantages that the kids in the public school in Erie do not have. They don’t have the resources. They don’t have what we have. End of story. And what they do have, they have to share.’ I can’t imagine the frustration, because we live out there and I’m thankful we live out there. But what if we lived in Erie? We can put our head in the sand, maybe it’s natural. But I don’t know what to say, as far as how can we help? I don’t know. I don’t even know.”
During the basketball game, Gwendolyn Cooley was selling 50/50 raffle tickets to help the East girl’s volleyball team raise money to go to a training camp.
Cooley’s retired now, but she was a parent involvement specialist with the Erie Schools for 25 years. Her son graduated from East in 1999. And her daughter is a freshman at the school. Cooley actually grew up in Erie, and she has fond memories of her public school experience in the city.
“The experience was awesome because we were able to do things. We had ski clubs, we had African-American history club, we had Spanish club. There was so much that we did that helped us develop into the people that we are today. I was a cheerleader. I played basketball. My cousin used to be on a water polo team. People don’t believe that. Yes, there was water polo at one time in the Erie City school district. Every high school had a band. We didn’t have to worry about selling pies and cakes and 50/50s. We were able to do those things.”
Cooley said today the situation is totally different. It bothers her that students in Erie don’t have the same opportunities she had.
“Sometimes I get upset because those people — who are in power — forgot that when they were in school they were a part of the band, the twirlers. You got to travel. You were part of the ski club, the French Club — those things which helped you develop into who you are now. You’re trying to take away from those kids now.”
Cooley said she wants her daughter to experience high school without the stress of worrying whether her school is going to close, or if there’s enough money for uniforms to field a sports team.
The pressure from the lack of funding in Erie is not just something that affects programming after school and extra-curricular activities.
Teachers at East High School feel the crunch everyday. Inside the classroom, it’s the lack of resources: books and technology. While outside the classroom, it’s professional development and ongoing training for teachers.
East is a diverse high school with about 1,000 students; about a quarter are English language learners and about 200 students who are a part of the special education program. All students qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch.
The school’s diversity has been a big draw for teachers like Milton Robinson, who listed off some of the countries where students comes from.
“Bosnia, Sudan, Morocco, the Congo, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan.”
Robinson teaches math and coaches track, and has worked for the Erie school district for 15 years.
He shared the ways Erie’s funding situation has had an impact on his students.
“For the first time since I’ve been working, I had kids asking me ‘Mr. Robinson, are you going to be here next year? Mr. Robinson, are they going to close our school? Mr. Robinson, are we going to lose our teachers?’ So that was an eye opener for me. Usually, you come in and you do your job. You plan, you try to deliver instruction as effectively as possible. You think of the kids as they don’t have any worries except to just take advantage of their learning. The idea that they’re actually concerned that they’re cognizant of those funding issues and the fact that they might be losing some of their favorite teachers,” said Robinson.
Students in Erie are also very aware that children in neighboring districts receive more funding, said Robinson, especially when they travel to away games for athletic competitions.
Robinson is also one of the head track and field coaches at East. He said the school district does not have a proper facility for the team to practice or hold meets.
“The fact that we don’t have a facility here — and haven’t for decades — was probably the big thing in my mind that started to make me realize this district is in trouble,” said Robinson. “I’ve watched my old high school grow one of the best looking track and field facilities, football fields in the region. I remember when they when they proposed it, built it, and it’s great for the community I’m in. So those students in that district — just down the road from here — are enjoying something that the 14,000 kids here absolutely deserve. Even more from just a regional standpoint. It just seems absurd that a city this large doesn’t have a place for kids to learn how to do something as basic as run.”
One student who is aware of the funding situation is Lyndsay Parker.
Parker is a sophomore who transferred to East at the beginning of the school year. She’s spent time making new friends, getting used to new teachers, and finding her niche at the school.
She said she’s constantly surrounded by the uncertainty of what’s going to happen with the school.
“It makes me very anxious, because it’s kind of bad coming to a new school, making new friends all over again. Getting used to the teachers, the classes, a new building. Then all of a sudden that’s put back on the line because there’s a possibility of schools merging, and then you have to move somewhere else,” said Parker. “East feels like home and going somewhere else would kind of be pushing me outside of my comfort zone.”
Parker’s mother, Angela, who is also a special education teacher at the school, said her daughter transferred to the school so she could participate in Junior ROTC. She is concerned her daughter has found a school that’s right for her, but that it might not be around by her senior year.
“If the high schools merge, where does that leave her and why she came to East where she excels? To merge the schools, financially it’s a good decision. But as a parent: What about my kid?”
Dr. Jay Badams also grapples with the same question: What about my kid?
Badams is the superintendent of Erie School District, which serves more than 11,000 students.
Three of his children have already graduated from Erie schools — and one is in middle school.
“I have a pretty reasonable amount of guilt sending my son to a school where the restroom facilities are such that you wouldn’t want a child to have to go in and use them.”
Through his seven-year tenure, he’s had to make more and more cuts each year. He said the school district’s funding situation has hit rock bottom. For him, Erie’s dire financial situation is a matter of equity.
“I think we had a watershed moment in the 1950s when Brown v. The Board of Education came into play. We had segregated schools, and they said that’s not okay. Separate but equal isn’t okay. We’re now by practice — maybe not by law — but by practice, we’re creating situations where those who live in urban environments or poor rural environments by virtue of poverty. By creating this gulf between some school districts and others, we’re creating a self-selecting segregation. And now we’re creating a situation where some of our schools are not only becoming more separate — they’re not even separate and equal — they’re separate and unequal. You can see it,” said Badams.
Erie’s school funding problem is rooted in a state policy that says school districts get to keep receiving the same amount of money from the state regardless of changes in enrollment.
“I guess if you go back in time to 1991. It’s my understanding of history that there was a budget impasse back then. And one of the byproducts of that budget impasse was a practice called Hold Harmless; in which school districts were no longer allocated state funding based on student headcount. But rather were just allowed to keep whatever money they got the previous year,” said Badams. “And then the legislature and governor’s office could negotiate over any increases. Well that’s fine until time elapses and some districts lose population, and others maintain or grow. What has happened over the intervening years is you’ve got some districts that have been essentially overfunded, and others that have been underfunded, and very few that have been funded just right because of stability of population.”
In 2016, state lawmakers attempted to level the playing field for funding the schools. They came up with a new funding formula that considers actual enrollment and student need — to address issues like poverty level and language fluency. But the way it works, only the new money is funneled through the new formula.
So for now, Erie won’t really benefit from the new funding formula. School district officials calculated it would take a whopping 27 years to experience a significant impact.
“When I look at what the kids have available to them in the high schools in the surrounding districts — and look at what ours have — it’s appalling,” said Badams. “When I see how little our kids have, it’s not overstating it to say that kids who have the least are getting the least in Erie. And I know there are other cities that are in similar circumstances, but I think in many of those cases some of the sort of austere measures we’ve had to take here have not yet been done. We’ve already cut every single year; and so each year we’re trying to keep the classroom sort of sacred. We can’t avoid it anymore. We’re going to have to cut this year.”
Badams and his colleagues are now figuring out how to consolidate some of the district’s schools.
“I feel like it’s my job is to preside over the dismantling of a school district,” said Badams. “I’m in charge of taking things away from kids in order to run the school district according to the rules.”
But by the fall, Badams will be leaving Erie to run a school district in New England; and he’ll be passing the torch to the school district’s chief financial officer Brian Polito.
Music: Tony Trov and Mike Vivas
Audio Engineers: Adam Staniszewski and Charlie Kaier
Reporters: Lindsay Lazarski; Jessica Kourkounis and Margaret Krauss contributed to our reporting
Executive Producer: Stephanie Marudas
Host, Editor: Naomi Starobin