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'Schooled' podcast goes inside America's public schools

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

In Pennsylvania, there has been a yearslong battle about how public schools are funded. A lot of the big-picture dynamics are similar to other places. The way that funding is set up often means that predominantly white schools end up with more money than predominantly Black or brown schools. Now, earlier this year, a judge in Pennsylvania ruled that the way the state funds its schools is unconstitutional. And the lawsuit, which was brought by school districts, parents and nonprofits, alleges that the state fails to provide adequate resources to educate kids in poorer districts. Reporter Aubri Juhasz spent months reporting the story for WHYY's podcast "Schooled" and joins us now. Hey, Aubri.

AUBRI JUHASZ, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for having me.

DETROW: So let's start with the lawsuit. What exactly does it say is broken with the funding system?

JUHASZ: Yeah. I mean, it said the system is fundamentally flawed. For starters, the amount of money that's being allocated doesn't line up with the expenses schools have, which wouldn't be such a big problem if all districts had enough local resources to fill that gap. And we just know that that really is not the case.

DETROW: And let's just underscore that here. It's because so many schools are funded by local property taxes. So if you live in a wealthy community, that's great. If you don't live in a wealthy community, your schools don't have the money they need.

JUHASZ: Exactly. And I think it's something that we just kind of accepted about public education, that some schools have enough resources and others don't. But, you know, if you look at state constitutions, it says that all of the schools are supposed to have enough resources. And that's just - it's particularly bad in Pennsylvania because the state does not contribute enough, which puts more of a burden on local districts. And then there are a lot of school districts. There's 500, which means that local wealth is really segregated, and that lines up with residential segregation. So you just have these huge inequities that really play out. And that's where we decided to start this season of the podcast, which was by taking listeners into two very different high schools that are right next to one another, pretty much, to see how those differences show up.

DETROW: All right. Let's listen to some of that reporting again. This is from the podcast "Schooled."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "SCHOOLED")

JUHASZ: We're in Delaware County, a densely populated suburb near Philadelphia.

NASHIRIE STEWART: We're currently at Penn Wood High School in Lansdowne, my previous high school where I graduated in 2021.

JUHASZ: Nasharie Stewart is 20 years old, in her second year of college and home for spring break, and she's offered to show us around Penn Wood to give us an insider's look. Nashiri has good memories of this place. When she was a student, she excelled in her classes, competed in mock trial, and served as a student representative on the district school board.

STEWART: You know, it's been the same building since the day that the high school opened up, so it's not in the best of shape.

JUHASZ: The building was pretty impressive when it first opened in 1927. Maintaining this once-great building has been a challenge since money is always tight, and that's even though the school's district, William Penn, has one of the highest property tax rates in the state. There just isn't a lot of wealth to tax here. Property across the majority-Black school district is worth about $1.5 billion. And that may sound like a lot, but compared to nearby districts, it's minuscule. One has nearly four times as much wealth, another 10 times. Both of those districts are predominantly white.

STEWART: Good to see you, too. How are you?

JUDY LEE: Oh, how are you doing?

STEWART: I'm good. Yeah.

LEE: Yeah. Hi. Nice to meet you.

JUHASZ: Hi. Nice to meet you.

LEE: My name is Judy Lee. I'm the principal here.

JUHASZ: Judy Lee has been the principal at Penn Wood since 2016. She knows the building and its problems better than anyone.

LEE: (Inaudible) heat...

JUHASZ: Heat? Like - oh. Yeah.

LEE: No heat.

JUHASZ: No heat. Yeah.

Another issue is overcrowding. The building has been cramped since the district merged three high schools into one in the early 1980s as a result of the Brown v. Board of Education ruling.

STEWART: Although that sign before you enter says, you know, food or drinks prohibited, students have to eat in here because they don't have anywhere else to eat.

JUHASZ: We're in a small gym where you have to shout to be heard over the air conditioning. The actual cafeteria is too crowded, and even with the gym used for overflow, there still isn't enough room for everyone to eat comfortably.

LEE: Students share, like, Dr. Lee, I don't want to be in that space. It's too crowded. I'm sorry. I don't have any other space for you.

JUHASZ: We walk downstairs and can't help but notice a big hole in the wall.

How did that happen? What is that?

LEE: So there was a situation, and a student basically could not control his anger. So he punched it, and then the wall broke.

JUHASZ: When was that?

LEE: That was last year.

JUHASZ: And then there's the library.

STEWART: And you can see that, like, the paneling from the ceiling is, like, coming down. Looks like it's about to fall off.

JUHASZ: The small, windowless room has a water-stained drop ceiling.

STEWART: We're still currently without a librarian. And so in order for students to be here, a teacher needs to, you know, take off from their lunch or their prep period to be down here so that students can be supervised while they're in here.

JUHASZ: Principal Lee points to something on the floor.

LEE: We have mice infestation in the building, so you see that mouse trap.

JUHASZ: It's an old-fashioned snap trap.

LEE: We caught, like, 10 mices (ph) in my office and also at the library, so we haven't called an exterminator. But the mouse trap is not really working.

JUHASZ: Principal Lee says over the winter, when the mouse problem was at its worst, staff had to clean mouse droppings off their desks every morning.

LEE: Because the root cause is the building structure, but we are not able to handle the root cause of the situation. We are only using the Band-Aids.

JUHASZ: All of this - the crowding, the crumbling walls, the mice - makes teaching and learning tough.

LEE: Yeah. One time, the mice actually just running through the classroom when class was happening, and teacher screamed and stood on the chair. And students were screaming, and it was just not conducive for our students' education.

JUHASZ: Nashirie says the mice weren't a problem when she was a student, but she remembers lots of times when lessons were interrupted because of facility issues, like the time they were reading Shakespeare in English class and a pipe in the ceiling burst. Water came gushing down, and they had to evacuate the classroom.

STEWART: Those minutes, they amount to a lot of hours eventually, and that can really take a toll on, like, what you're able to learn and what curriculum is able to get through. And before you know it, you know, you're a little bit behind. And, you know, being behind, especially when other schools around you, like, they aren't behind, you know, we're all trying to get into the same colleges later on. So...

JUHASZ: Principal Lee knows the facility's situation is frustrating for students and teachers. It's frustrating for her, too. But without more money, there isn't much she can do.

LEE: Our school culture is basically unity because if we don't work together, we are not going to make it.

JUHASZ: That sense of unity is why Nashirie visits Penn Wood whenever she can.

STEWART: Growing up here, like, I've had to do the best that I can with what I have. I think that translates really well into college, when you're in a new environment. And so taking those same skills I sort of had to learn here to survive here, I'm now taking to use in college to thrive there. And so I think it, you know, works out.

JUHASZ: But she knows that going to a school like this can make kids feel like they're being left behind, forgotten.

STEWART: When your school isn't, you know, in the best of shape, it can make you feel bad about yourself and your own self-esteem. And it makes you wonder, like, why aren't you worth necessary funding to have what other schools have?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: How much money do you think your school spends each year?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: I don't know. Maybe a thousand.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #2: Five hundred.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: Probably, like, $30.

JUHASZ: Thirty dollars?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #3: I don't know. Actually, 50. Fifty.

JUHASZ: School funding is not something the average kid knows that much about, let alone how much it costs to run a school. But this issue is certainly on the minds of current students at Penn Wood High School.

TRINITY GIDDINGS: Paul, do you want to go first?

PAUL VANDY: Yeah, OK.

JUHASZ: Trinity Giddings and Paul Vandy are seniors. They spend a lot of time together in the classroom and after school. They even co-host a podcast. The topic - school funding.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GIDDINGS: Hello everyone. This is Trinity and Paul, and welcome to "Pending Funds," the podcast...

JUHASZ: Paul is also a representative on the district's school board.

VANDY: A lot of times, when I try to bring up issues, it always went back to, you know, funding, funding, funding. We don't have enough funding for this. We don't have enough funding for that. If I'm always running into a roadblock at our - in our own school, let me kind of get to the heart of it and kind of see what's really going on.

JUHASZ: So Paul and Trinity started doing their own research.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VANDY: Welcome back to "Pending Funds." Today we're going to be talking about how public schools are funded. A little over $7 billion gets spread out over 500 school districts.

JUHASZ: They learned that Pennsylvania relies more heavily on local property taxes to fund schools than almost all other states. That's why some schools have so much more money than others and why their school has so much less. During their freshman year, Paul and Trinity saw that discrepancy firsthand when they went to another school district for a speech and debate competition. They took a 20-minute drive north to one of the state's wealthiest school districts, Lower Merion.

VANDY: I had never seen what Lower Merion looked like. I didn't look it up, really. So I was kind of walking in blind.

JUHASZ: You might have heard of it because of its most notable graduate, the late NBA superstar Kobe Bryant.

(CHEERING)

JUHASZ: When they got to the school for their competition, Paul and Trinity could not believe their eyes.

GIDDINGS: There's, like, a cafeteria kind of outside. Like, they could kind of eat, like, outside. There's all these tables. We're like, oh, wow, that's nice.

VANDY: I thought it was like, this is a fantasy experience 'cause the ceilings were huge.

GIDDINGS: We go in there - man, their lockers were the size of refrigerators. You could sleep in there.

VANDY: The place was spacious. It looked, like, amazing. It was pristine. It looked like - it was update. I never seen, like, a fully updated school. So walking around, everyone from our school was shocked, actually. Everyone was saying, like, people go to school here?

JUHASZ: This district has a lower tax rate than William Penn but still brings in way more money because its property is worth so much more. Drive around the winding, leafy roads with beautiful, stately mansions and you'll understand why. As a result, Lower Merion spends $13,000 more per student each year than William Penn. And it isn't just a matter of having extra things, like dance studios and robots. There are also major academic differences between the two districts. Lower Merion touts its liberal arts curriculum with more than 200 courses. Students can earn an international baccalaureate diploma, which is considered by many to be the most rigorous. Penn Wood offers about a dozen advanced placement courses, but there's no fancy diploma, and overall class options are far more limited. Later that year, the kids from Lower Merion's speech and debate team visited Penn Wood. Trinity says there weren't even enough classrooms available.

GIDDINGS: So we were in closets, quite literally. I had a round in a storage closet because there was no more room.

JUHASZ: Some of the rounds took place in the library, the one with the mouse traps.

GIDDINGS: They had to unlock the library, and there were all these dust on the books. And they're like, why is this space unused? And we can't even tell them why. And kids are, like, laughing and wondering why this school looks like this. And you just have to be quiet and not mention that it's your school.

JUHASZ: Paul was upset by what the students said.

VANDY: I'm not any different from any other student down the road. But knowing that they get opportunities that I don't just because, you know, how much money their parents have or things that are out of my control, you know, it hurts you because you just feel like, what can I do about this?

DETROW: That was a portion of WHYY's podcast "Schooled," hosted by reporter Aubri Juhasz, who is with me now. And, Aubri, we began the conversation talking about this judicial ruling that the school funding system right now is unconstitutional. What happens next, and does that change anything for this school year?

JUHASZ: Yeah, so nothing really changes in an immediate sense. We have this moment in the second episode of the season that I really love, where one of the parents involved in the lawsuit describes being at the grocery store when the decision dropped. And she's so excited, she literally says out loud, we won, we won the case. And somebody else in the store says to her, well, how much did you win? And she tells them, pretty deadpan, you know, it ain't that type of case. And what she means by that is we're not looking at a prescriptive payout like you would for an injury settlement or something like that. What we're looking at is, you know, the judge having said this system doesn't work. Fix it. So now we're in a situation where lawmakers have to do that, and that takes quite a lot of political maneuvering. These are really big changes. And something that is notable, though, is that the lawmakers here in Pennsylvania are not disputing any of this. Both Democrats and Republicans have decided not to appeal. They're really acknowledging that the system is broken and they have to fix it.

DETROW: What is the specific plan to fix it then? Because this is something that has been an issue in the state House for a really long time, far beyond a decade ago when I was covering these same conversations that didn't lead to any changes.

JUHASZ: Yeah. I mean, the big difference is that there's this mandate now. One lawmaker who's been working on this for a long time described it as a hammer over lawmakers' heads. So they've reconvened the school funding commission that has existed in the past. They're having a statewide listening tour that starts this month to kind of hear about all of the different issues. And Governor Josh Shapiro has given them a deadline. He said that they have to revise the state's funding formula in time for it to be implemented for the next budget cycle, which starts in July. In terms of an immediate step, the state, after quite a lot of fighting, did approve more spending for education in this year's budget - $700 million, about an 8% increase. And that includes $100 million for the state's poorest school districts. And while that's not enough for advocates to be, you know, super-duper excited, it does feel like an initial commitment and a starting place.

DETROW: That is Aubri Juhasz, host of the latest season of WHYY's podcast called "Schooled." It was produced by Michaela Winberg and Michael Olcott. Thanks, Aubri.

JUHASZ: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Aubri Juhasz is a news assistant for NPR's All Things Considered.