Two Stats That Show Harrisburg Is Stacking the Deck Against Philly Schools

An open letter to Senate majority leader Jake Corman on how to go about fixing it.

Dear Sen. Jake Corman:

I’ve been thinking about you lately. Admittedly, I wasn’t too thrilled to see you displace local favorite Dom Pileggi as the majority leader in the Pennsylvania Senate. But you’ve been on my mind ever since you did an interview with NewsWorks and said something kind of nice about Philadelphia.

“As a Republican, we’ve made a living over the years picking on Philadelphia. I don’t think there’s any question about that,” you said. “But we’re as successful as they are. If Philadelphia is a tremendous, thriving city full of opportunity and cultural advances that communities from around the state and around the country want to come see, that’s good for everybody in the state.”

It was so surprising to hear a Pennsylvania legislator say something nice about Philly that I made a big joke of it here at But as the legislative year has gotten under way, it’s occurred to me that you might mean what you say — and that you might just be the man to help lead Pennsylvania Republicans down the path of helping the Philadelphia school district finally succeed and thrive — provided you understand exactly the problem that ails it.

And the problem is the poverty.

No! Wait! Hear me out! Before you start making any mention of “hard work” and “boot straps,” I want to remind you of a couple of things: There’s not a child alive who chooses to be poor. But being poor creates a number of headwinds for a child just starting out in school.

First is the plain, raw fact that poor kids generally show up to school less ready to learn and retain what they’ve learned. This city’s educators are challenged from the very first day students show up for school. That they rise to the challenge is nothing less than heroic — and whatever you think about teachers’ unions, I hope you can at least value the work done by most teachers.

The second problem with the poverty, though, is political, and this is where you come in. In the last week, we saw two reports that showed us how big a problem poverty really is for the Philadelphia school district:

• First, a Washington Post analysis showed us that “In Pennsylvania, per-pupil spending in the poorest school districts is 33 percent lower than per-pupil spending in the wealthiest school districts.” That disparity is the highest in the nation — so big that even when federal dollars are included, there’s still a huge gap between per-pupil spending in the richest and poorest districts.

• Second, an analysis from Research for Actionfirst reported in The Notebook — shows that the Student Performance Profile used to measure the academic performance of every school in the state (with sanctions coming against persistently low-performing schools) seems to be actually measuring the poverty level of those schools.

“As the percent of a school’s economically disadvantaged population increases,” SPP scores decrease.

Which, duh, right?

So understand this, Senator Corman: Your colleagues in Harrisburg are judging our schools not on their actual success in educating students — not by the factors under their control, at least — but by their poverty rates. At the same time, your colleagues in Harrisburg have created a system of school funding that lets the rich kids gobble up the lion’s share of our collective public resources.

Those are choices, Senator Corman. Those are choices being made in Harrisburg, that stack the deck against Philadelphia schools. But choices can be changed. And you can lead your colleagues in starting to make that change.

Again, the problem isn’t really the SRC or who leads it, or whether we have enough charters or not enough of them. The problem is poverty. You can see that now, right?

We’ve already got one important figure in Harrisburg apparently on our side in this matter, but Gov. Tom Wolf can’t make needed changes by himself. He’ll need the help of people on your side. You already know Philadelphia’s success is important to Pennsylvania’s future. You said so on the radio. Now: Show us you meant it.


A Philly parent.

Follow @JoelMMathis on Twitter.