The following testimony from Anne Gemmell at last week’s “people’s hearings” prior to the regular session, draws out the inequity in the way education is funded in our state.
Good afternoon, Senator Patrick Brown, fellow esteemed members of the Basic Education Funding Commission and concerned citizens of our region. Thank you for being here today to listen to the families affected by the lack of a sensible funding formula for our schools. Leadership begins with listening.
My name is Anne Gemmell and I live in Whitemarsh, PA. I am a former Philadelphia history teacher and mother of three. Full disclosure, I am also the Pre-K for PA Field Director at Public Citizens for Children in Youth (PCCY). I felt compelled to speak today because I am in a rather unique situation. I have seen our statewide funding problem from the front row. My daughters, Isabelle and Eva live primarily with me and attend Colonial School District schools. My son Harrison lives primarily with his father in Philadelphia. Therefore, he attends a city school district high school. The difference between school resources is astounding. In my daughters’ suburban schools, they have a handle on every child with any need whatsoever. If they speak a second language, if they have any disabilities, if they need help paying for a class trip, if children lack hats and gloves, the school is able to help. The need there is manageable and well-managed. In Philadelphia, simply determining all of the crushing needs children have is very challenging. Actually managing the crushing need and managing it well is not possible under the current circumstances. Philadelphia is the deepest poor large city in the country and our state’s lack of school funding equity is exacerbating conditions for thousands and thousands of children.
I once thought it was due to the city’s lack of willingness to raise property taxes. But, upon deeper examination, I learned this is not the case at all. Amazingly, homeowners in Philadelphia are far more burdened than homeowners and families in surrounding districts. According to Pennsylvania’s own State Tax Equalization Board, Colonial school district homeowners pay $12.40 for every $1,000 of property value. However, in Philadelphia, homeowners are paying $20.20 for every $1,000 of property value. This 8 point gap of equalized millage rates for neighboring districts would be bad news even if the schools were equally adequate. But, to make matters worse, in Colonial SD, we are paying less in taxes but enjoying more resources in our schools. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, homeowners carry a far heavier tax burden but are suffering deeply under-resourced schools for their families. The equalized millage rate is especially apparent to our family because it translates in absolute numbers as well. In Whitemarsh we pay about $3,400 in property taxes per year for well-funded schools. However, in Philadelphia, we pay over $6,000 per year for a house of about the same value. Yes, we (and many other Philadelphians) pay more for schools with deeply inadequate resources. How can leaders allow such backward policy go on year after year? Why do we even track STEB equalized millage rates if we are not willing to implement policies that could account for them? Further, why would we knowingly allow so many children across PA to be short-changed during their critical, youthful years simply because they live in a community unable to extract any more local resources?
In closing, I had to buy my kids new coats this past weekend. As I looked at all of the Christmas decorations everywhere, I thought it was annoying before Thanksgiving. What is the season is really all about? To me, it’s not only about the historical baby Jesus and the pure love only a mother can know. Christmas is also a metaphor for all children here and now. All children need humanity, hope, and opportunity through love writ large: justice. A smart school funding formula in PA would not only be a vast improvement in fiscal and education policy, but it would also be an expression of justice. I urge you to forge an equitable, predictable and adequate school funding formula for Pennsylvania as soon as possible. It means more real opportunity, more possibility and less crushing need for thousands of families and communities across PA. Thank you.