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Vanaski: As Pa. schools' spending gap widens, kids learn to do without

| Wednesday, March 18, 2015, 11:27 p.m.

It seems a little off that where you live can determine the type of education you receive. But that's the way things are in Pennsylvania right now.

Some might say that sounds alarmist, or overstating things. If you think so, perhaps you should take a closer look at a report this week showing that the per-student spending gap between poor and rich school districts is wider than in any other state. In 2012, the money spent on an individual student in a poor district was 33 percent less than a rich counterpart.

Now what does that mean exactly?

“What it says very clearly is that we have, in many places, school systems that are separate and unequal.”

That's not me — that's what federal Education Secretary Arne Duncan told The Washington Post.

Yes, that sounds like it's bad, but what does it really mean to a child attending school in a district that gets less money?

Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane was not available for comment, so I asked Jessie Ramey, a mother of two Pittsburgh Public Schools children. She writes the blog “Yinzercation,” which advocates for better funding for public schools.

Ramey called the report devastating news. “But many of us knew that was the case,” she said.

The lack of state funding for schools “pushes responsibility down on school districts who have no choice but to raise property taxes.”

For richer districts with a growing tax base, that's something that can be absorbed. But in districts with shrinking populations or high poverty rates, it's a serious problem.

This year Ramey's son is in a classroom with 39 other children. That's because thousands of teachers have left the district over the years, she said. Music, arts and tutoring programs have been cut.

Think about that for a second. Over the years, the solution to the money problem hasn't largely been addressed by asking how to infuse more money into schools. It's been addressed by asking, “What can our kids do without?”

“Just about everything that isn't nailed down has been lost,” Ramey said.

I'm not sure when teaching children about the arts became something not nailed down, but there you go.

Yet Ramey is optimistic. Gov. Tom Wolf's proposed budget would allocate 500 million more dollars toward basic education and special education funding. This week, state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera sent a letter to all state superintendents clarifying the ways that money could be spent. Districts must submit a plan by May 15 outlining how they would spend additional money.

“Parents have been arguing for this stuff for years,” Ramey said. “Our city is strong when it has a strong education system.”

Getting there is not as easy as adding more money, as teachers have been quick to tell me. Even Duncan said, “Money by itself is never the only answer.”

But Wolf's plan addresses a truth that has been somewhat lost over the years: Better education is at the heart of improving any population.

So no, money is not the complete answer here. But more of it is a start.

Nafari Vanaski is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-856-7400, ext. 8669, or on Twitter @NafariTrib.

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