“Students across Pennsylvania deserve to have their schools fairly funded. Students in Philadelphia deserve to go to sufficiently funded schools. Just because the overwhelming majority of Philadelphia students are black, doesn’t mean they do not deserve equal access to resources. Just because most of Philadelphia’s students are poor, black and underachieving doesn’t mean they don’t deserve our investment. Schools in Philadelphia are not well funded because white patriarchy perpetuates the current system to feed the school-to-prison pipeline. By not investing in schools, WE are feeding the school-to-prison pipeline.” As each word leaps from my lips, another potential supporter of equitable education in Pennsylvania is lost at sea. With each prod, I have worn at the foundation of this all. Let’s start again, with something we can all agree on.
There’s no way to know how it feels to be a minority being followed in a store, unless you are a minority. Those anxious eyes that interrogate instead of inquiring are often dismissed as figments of paranoia. Implicit bias is a slippery concept for one with privilege to grasp, but numbers and chilling images do not lie. We can all agree that Philadelphia neighborhood schools are poorly funded and low performing; we cannot all agree that these schools are low performing largely as a result of being poorly funded. Admitting as much would discredit suburban education and, even worse, threaten the way things are. Similarly, PCCY knows that getting suburban politicians, and more importantly their constituents, to support legislation dismantling a funding system that benefits them is highly unlikely. What’s even more unlikely is for them to do so for the benefit of African American, Latino, and immigrant students alone. Using terms such as “equal”, “universal”, “fair”, and “equitable” is the only method by which these lofty goals seem reasonably attainable.
A few weeks back, I attended a small press conference in Delaware County to promote the PCCY-sponsored School Play. The script for this production is entirely made up of quotes from extensive interviews with teachers, principals, parents, and students from across the state concerning education. Aside from us, there were enough attendees to count on one hand and the sun was unrelenting. From this humble event, I learned one of the most vital, harsh lessons in advocacy. The Ridley School District’s superintendent delivered a speech advocating for universal access to high-quality Pre-K, her most memorable line being “we cannot ghettoize this issue. This is an issue faced by children across the state.” There it was, right in my face. It hit me like a belly flop from a mile high diving board. People do not care about issues that do not affect them.
It was an obvious truth, at face value, but it stung more as I pondered. Her statement, at its bare bones, translated to “look, I know the poor black kids are most affected by unfair funding, but it’s hurting us too.” The framework of PCCY’s message changes to “those people in the suburbs shouldn’t have more than you” when addressing Philadelphians. That’s a zero sum game for you. Generally, we cannot all agree on answers to why and how things are the way they are, but questions of what are less contentious. Values wrongfully associated with America, such as freedom and equality, are the minority, woman, LGBTQ, child, etc. advocates’ primary vehicle for driving gradual social change. American exceptionalism says that we are above inequity and corruption, but our culture trains us to be individualistic and to want more than others. This contradiction is embedded in our country’s framework, a force we are both confronting and evading. Advocates choose to confront it, expose it even. However, there are situations where surface level exposition is appropriate and others where it’s necessary to get to the root of issues. My impression is that local politics coincides with the former and state/national with the latter. How can we be sure of which to use in which situation? Well, that’s a tough call. That’s something we can all agree on.