The Injustice of Philadelphia Area Public School Funding: A Dominant Bridge Between Wealth and Education

In wealthy, suburban townships of Philadelphia, the average school district spent 33% more in per student than center city districts in 2015.[1] This astonishing figure is a biproduct of years of injustice imposed upon innocent Americans whose academic opportunity was (and still is) arbitrated from their zip code. For most, the spoils of per capita[2] wealth have contributed towards greater emphasis on per student expenditure. Lower Merion School District on the “Main Line” of Philadelphia has 3x the amount of per capita income and 2x the amount of per student funding than in The School District of Philadelphia. [3],[4] These inflated multiples are not a matter of coincidence. There must be a structural flaw in Philadelphia public school funding that can be attributed to this negligent behavior.

Michael Walzer, an accomplished American political theorist and professor emeritus in the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton, argues in his book Spheres of Justice that the theory of Complex Equality can rationalize the phenomenon seen in Pennsylvania public schooling. Whereas most egalitarian political philosophers in Walzer’s era supported Simple Equality[5] in opposition to monopolistic control of a good, Walzer promoted Complex Equality, or opposition to dominant control of goods. Dominance within spheres of society allows a monopoly in one social good to “command a wide range of other goods” (Walzer 10). In the case of Philadelphia public school funding, the dominant nexus between wealth and education has resulted in widespread disservice to Philadelphia County students. The following essay will defend this thesis by detailing the architecture of Walzer’s theory of Complex Equality, observing the moral cases for Philadelphia’s gap in public school spending, professing the cognitive dissonance that Philadelphians hold, and utilizing Walzer’s Complex Equality to design a brighter future for Philadelphia students.

All egalitarian political theorists agree that there are social goods that should be distributed in society. Social goods range from political loyalty to education and encompass anything that can be justly distributed.[6] Where Walzer diverges from his egalitarian peers is the distinction between a Simple and Complex view of distributional equality. The Simple Equality theorists believe that justice in distribution stems from “one good or one set of goods [that] is dominant and determinative of value in all the spheres of distribution” (Walzer 10). For example, in a capitalist society, capital would be the universal good, in a technocratic society, technical expertise would fit, etc. However, reality dictates that societies have an abundance of different social goods and there is never a singular universal. This leaves a challenge for Simple Equality because to achieve distributional equality, the government has to regulate a range of social goods. Walzer concludes that this is an impossible task and that “no state power has ever been so pervasive as to regulate all patterns of sharing, dividing, and exchanging out of which a society takes shape” (Walzer 4).

In response to the pitfalls of Simple Equality, Walzer introduces a revised theory of distributive justice, Complex Equality. Walzer recognizes that “there has never been a single criterion, or single set of interconnected criteria, for all distributions” (Walzer 4). Complex Equality is pluralistic in form, meaning that “this multiplicity of goods is matched by a multiplicity of distributive procedures, agents, and criteria” (Walzer 3). According to Walzer, each social good is associated with its own understanding of the dynamic that informs its distributional logic. For example, there is a colossal difference between how wealth and political office should be distributed. Wealth should be distributed in order to support individuals in a capitalist society, and political office should be awarded to a competent individual devoted to serving their constituents. Although as Walzer points out, a monopoly in a sphere such as wealth can create a dominant influence over other spheres (e.g. political office).

Complex Equality exposes the distributional injustices of dominance. Dominance, as stated earlier, is when monopolistic control in one sphere (social good) allows the individual to “command a wide range of other goods” (Walzer 10). Walzer observes that there is an interconnected network of spheres, which leaves society susceptible to dominance. The central issue with dominance is that “the ruling group does not possess, or does not unique possess, the qualities it claims; the conversion process violates the common understanding of the goods at stake” (Walzer 12). Individuals with dominance between spheres undermine the internal logic of those spheres. In reference to the previous example, the nexus of wealth and political office in the United States dissolves the merit of political offices. If an individual is able to use their wealth that they have accumulated through success in business, that shouldn’t be linked to a greater likelihood of political office. Their credentials as a successful businessperson may improve their candidacy, but there is a separate internal logic associated with evaluating political office.

In the case of Philadelphia public school funding, there is a detrimental nexus between wealth and education. For Philadelphians, there are conflicting ideologies that lead to this result. First, adults in Philadelphia County make 3x less per capita income than their “Main Line” counterparts. Wealth is understood to follow a free market logic and those who derive value from goods and services are rewarded with higher compensation. This is not entirely true, the Federal Reserve reported in 2015 that intergenerational inter vivos[7] transfers averaged $350 billion dollars per year in the period 1995-2016.[8] However for the purposes of this essay, the legitimacy of wealth creation will be accepted. Education on the other hand follows the logic that those who perform well in the classroom will receive accreditation in their transcripts and in positioning for higher levels of education. The School District of Philadelphia receives 2x less per student funding than their “Main Line” counterparts. A Philadelphian would contend that those who fail to succeed in the workforce will earn less and those who perform poorly in the classroom will receive lower grades. In light of these moral conceptions, why should Philadelphia students be punished for their residential zip code?

There is a disappointing cognitive dissonance for Philadelphian’s that believe both of these internal logics. Actions and beliefs for stewards of Philadelphia public school funding differ immensely! The reality for a Philadelphian is that real estate near Philadelphia County and “Main Line” schools vastly differ in price. Those who have “monopolized” or accumulated large sums of wealth are able to translate that wealth into a higher quality of education from public schooling. The drastic difference of nearly $14,000 per student[9] in 2013 public school funding between The School District of Philadelphia and Lower Merion School District, engenders a significant gap in opportunity for students that should be evaluated on their academic performance. Critics cite poor degrees of student engagement and performance within inner city school districts, but unequal funding shows that administrators have resigned from granting students in Philadelphia County any opportunity for a bright future. Primary and Secondary Schooling are very formative years for students, and therefore rational decision makers should resolve this crippling policy.

Walzer’s theory of Complex Equality prescribes that there is dominance in the nexus of wealth and education in Philadelphia public schooling. Complex Equality can also help inform a strategy to correct the disparity in funding. Walzer near the end of Spheres of Justice delivers three distributive principles that remodel distributive justice. The second principle discusses the idea of moral desert and lists the example of an artistically cultivated person. An artistically cultivated person, such as an art trader, may be skillful at bargaining and trading pieces of artwork, but as a trader “it would be odd to say that I deserve them simply because I am good at bargaining or trading” (Walzer 24). Instead of an unwarranted model of redistribution (separation of painters and artistically cultivated people), Walzer recommends that a third, governmental agent could buy the paintings on the free market and place them in museums. The government would play an instrumental role in respecting the internal logics of the free market system and providing for the distributional equality of society. In Philadelphia public schooling, parents with accumulated wealth can still pay for supplemental assistance in education, but the Pennsylvania Department of Education must take charge to equalize opportunity across Philadelphia area public schools. For starters, Pennsylvania’s antiquated “hold harmless” policy must be reformed to support growing public school districts.

Under the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s “hold harmless” policy, school districts receive at least the previous per annum school funding in order to mitigate the attrition of enrollment in Western Pennsylvania schools. This policy has persisted throughout the past few decades and serves at the expense of districts with growing enrollment such as The School District of Philadelphia. Annual maintenance of district funding means that yearly enrollment has to be covered within the same previous annual budget, resulting in less funding per student. Incumbent Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania has made strides towards a gradual phase-out of the “hold harmless” policy, but expediated action is required to improve student outcomes.

In all, a dissolution of the dominant nexus between wealth and education, once reviewed through the lens of Walzer’s theory of Complex Equality, can provide brighter futures for all Philadelphia area students. Nelson Mandela once stated that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” By breaking the linkage of dominance between spheres of wealth and education in Philadelphia area public schools, all students will be enabled to make a positive impact on the world. Education is the key to a fulfilled life and Philadelphians must act for justice.

 

Notes

[1] “A School Funding Formula for Philadelphia: Lessons from Urban Districts across the United States.” The Pew Charitable Trusts, Jan. 2015.

[2] Per capita refers to the adult population within a given county.

[3] “U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts: Pennsylvania.” Census Bureau QuickFacts, United States Census Bureau, www.census.gov/quickfacts/pa.

[4] Tauber, Eugene. “MAP: What It Costs to Educate Children in Pennsylvania, District by District.” Themorningcall.com, 30 Aug. 2016, www.mcall.com/news/local/mc-school-district-snapshots-2016-expenditures-htmlstory.html.

[5] Distributional equality caused by the redistribution of a singular, universal social good

[6] An example of something that cannot be justly distributed is natural talents. Although some political theorists have mitigated the inequalities of natural talents, they cannot be physically redistributed.

[7] “Substantial gifts of money and assets from one living person to another”

[8] Feiveson, Laura, and John Sabelhaus. “How Does Intergenerational Wealth Transmission Affect Wealth Concentration?” Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 1 June 2018.

[9] Tauber. “MAP: What It Costs to Educate Children in Pennsylvania, District by District.”

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At Yale-NUS College, we are thinking about ideals of equality and democracy, and how they relate to practice, in Singapore and in the wider world.

This website showcases our reflections.

Articles were originally submitted as course papers for Professor Sandra Field’s classes Contemporary Egalitarianism and Democratic Theory.

The Equality&Democracy project has been made possible through the support of a Teaching Innovation Grant from the Yale-NUS Centre for Teaching and Learning: ‘Applying Political Philosophy to Real World Cases’.

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