Five of the country’s 50 most economically segregated neighboring school districts are located in Western Pennsylvania.
That’s according to a national study by New Jersey-based think tank Ed Build that was updated with new data last week. It identified Western Pennsylvania as an “inequality belt” where several districts’ students are isolated in a high-poverty school district and a neighboring affluent community is supported by a healthy local economy.
The report highlights Allegheny County's wealthier West Jefferson Hills, which sits next to poorer Clairton City, Beaver County's Hopewell Area alongside Aliquippa, and Cambria County's Conemaugh Township, Westmont Hilltop and Richland bordering less prosperous Greater Johnstown. The students in Clairton, Greater Johnstown and Aliquippa are mostly nonwhite and nearly 40 percent of students at each district are living in poverty.
Zahava Stadler with Ed Build said that while most of the country has emerged from the Great Recession and the average school district has seen its student poverty rates go down by a few points, some schools that were struggling before the recession haven’t made gains.
“One of the things that really emerges from this report is that in the Northeast and Midwest, former industrial heartland, but sometimes called the Rust Belt, including western Pennsylvania, we see communities that were struggling before the Great Recession and are still struggling afterwards. And so that that need that's concentrated in those communities is really showing up in the schools,” Stadler said.
Much of the difference is built into the way Pennsylvania funds education through property taxes.
With 501 school districts in Pennsylvania, most district zones are drawn around one town.
“So when you have a town that's lost its steel mills that hasn't recovered, where poverty has been concentrated, that's really rough on the local economy,” she said. “When the school district border is pretty small and outlines that local economy in a narrow and specific way, then the resources outside that town are inaccessible to it. And kids are forced to stay within schools that are within a pretty small area without the local funding that would support them.”
The story of Clairton City School District, though, is a bit unusual. It is highlighted in the report as a case study. While some of the districts with stark disparities were impacted by the loss of industry, Clairton relies on it. According to the report, Clairton Coke Works provides about one-third of local tax dollars, which fund the schools. Though the plant is also to blame for poor air quality in the region.
The wealth disparity between the district and neighboring West Jefferson Hills is the 9th largest gap identified in the country. While 40 percent of Clairton students are impoverished, 5 percent of West Jefferson Hills students are.
“Clairton has had to make something of a devil's bargain where because the Pennsylvania state funding system forces Clairton to be so reliant on local property taxes, they've had to go where that money is. That money is in the Clairton Coke Works and the Clairton Coke Works is pouring lots of sulfur dioxide into the air in the town,” Stadler said.
Stadler said small district borders only entrench poverty.
“When you outline a small area, what you're saying is this needy community is not going to have the money to support its schools well and the only people that are going to remain in that community and remain in those schools are the people who don't have the money to buy their way out,” she said.
The report’s findings don’t surprise Leigh Patel the associate dean for equity and justice at University of Pittsburgh’s school of education. She says entrenched poverty impacts all aspects of a community’s vitality.
“That’s not just about education, that's about the housing insecure, food insecure, healthcare insecure and that affects society as a whole,” she said.
She said, though, it would take great political will to change the situation.
"I think that pressure has to come from a number of stakeholders, one of which is parents, another of which needs to be educators who can speak to the specifics of what is going on with daily resources. What are the amenities that they have to work with and what effects do they see on children's learning based on those amenities and resources?" she said.
Erica Frankenberg, a professor in Penn State University’s Education Policy Studies department, said it would take a thoughtful approach to come up with a solution to decrease the number of school districts in the state, but she said it would diversify communities and ultimately benefit students.
While Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell made the controversial proposal to reduce the number of districts to 100 in 2009, Frankenberg said setting a random number didn’t make sense.
When it comes to funding, both Leigh and Frankenberg said the state could look to a number of states that have found more equitable ways to pay for public education. Vermont, for example, collects property taxes and the state distributes the dollars.
Stadler said economic ups and downs are inevitable. But she said there are ways to fund schools without leaving communities “stranded.”
“We need to say your neighborhood can’t be on its own and the more we think of being in this together we can avoid the ups and downs,” she said.