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How do we tackle the broken promise of equal opportunity in education?

By James H. Lytle on Sep 5, 2014 10:43 AM

A few weeks ago, I wrote a commentary piece in which I argued that the School District and its supporters should focus attention on how to provide quality schooling with available resources and not concentrate solely on additional funding. The article generated many critical responses. Readers contended that I had given up on the fight for adequate funding for District students and was willing to settle for less than what students need – in terms of nurses, counselors and libraries, for example.

I regret that I was unclear. I absolutely do not think that District schools should passively accept less. My intent had been to suggest a strategy for providing quality education given the current circumstances and political climate. But that message clearly got overwhelmed by some of the recommendations I made.

This experience prompted me to think further about what parents, advocates, students, their teachers, and the community want and how politicians could respond.

So, here, I attempt to provide background for the long-running efforts to improve Philadelphia public schools and suggest options for action.

The situation in Philadelphia reflects a national policy debate that centers on the differences between equal opportunity and equal outcomes. Equal opportunity has generally been taken to mean that students in poor communities have access to schools with the same – if not more – resources as students in wealthier communities.

That concept is the premise of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965. Title I of that act provides supplemental funding for schools with high concentrations of students from low-income families. In addition, some state courts have bolstered the “opportunity” side. In New Jersey, the state’s Supreme Court, in its Abbott decision, provided the state’s urban districts with funding equal to its wealthy districts.

The No Child Left Behind legislation, enacted in 2001, reauthorized and updated ESEA. It shifted federal policy from an emphasis on equal opportunity to an emphasis on equal outcomes. Race to the Top has reinforced that strategy. NCLB emphasizes student achievement as determined by test scores and rewards schools whose students meet performance standards, while punishing schools that do not (by closing them, converting them to charter schools, or dismissing their faculties). Some failing schools may be given “improvement grants” to help them meet standards, but in the main, low-performing schools are expected to improve with the resources they already have.

Much of what has happened in Philadelphia schools during the last 12 years has been driven by NCLB. Yet there is no evidence to date, either in Philadelphia or nationally, that either the original ESEA or NCLB has leveled the playing field and produced either equal opportunity or equal outcomes for disadvantaged students. In requiring districts to show progress not just for all students, but for ethnic and other sub-groups, NCLB did, appropriately, draw attention to students whose performance has historically been linked to race, poverty, special needs, and language spoken at home.

Meanwhile, equity issues have moved to the center of American politics as reflected by widespread concern about income inequality and stagnation, college student debt, mortgage foreclosures, unemployment, an increased minimum wage, immigration reform, and other related issues.

At the same time, many of the factors that predict educational outcomes as they relate to educational opportunity have been identified. These include access to quality child-care and pre-school programs, summer and afterschool activities, highly qualified teachers working in good schools, curriculum standards, parents with college educations, and family income.

Until 1975, U.S. schools did a reasonable job at providing equal opportunity, but from that point on, family income has become an increasingly powerful predictor of everything from access to quality pre-school to college admissions and completion, and to post-college employment. Because of the advantages that wealth provides, education in the United States contributes to inequality instead of helping to remedy it.

All these considerations are at play in the despair that parents feel as they see Philadelphia public schools collapse. They want their children to be happy, successful adults, but they wonder, with good reason, whether District schools can serve their children in ways that will make that likely. Charter schools have provided an option, but they don’t begin to have the resources of Lower Merion or independent schools like Penn Charter. A Pennsylvania school funding formula is being sought as a solution, but the likelihood is extremely low that even stable school funding will bring equal opportunity and overcome the many disadvantages that urban (and rural) children face.

In my view, more money alone is not a sufficient answer, because more money will still not provide the range of opportunities and supports that many Philadelphia children need. A good strategy regardless of the funding situation is to use the city’s extraordinary higher education, medical, and cultural resources to supplement the schooling provided by District and charter schools.

As an illustration, when I was a Philadelphia principal and also as Trenton schools superintendent, I worked constantly to overcome the ”opportunity to learn” disadvantages our students faced by drawing on every additional resource we could identify. That led to partnerships with the University of Pennsylvania, Merrill Lynch, the Educational Testing Service, the New Jersey Treasury Department, the city’s Recreation Department, and a host of others who provided courses, internships, mentors, tutoring, afterschool and summer programs, and whatever other supports they could – all at no cost.

That is why I and others are pressing our elected officials, and business, higher education, religious and civic leaders to commit to improving conditions for Philadelphia public school students by using whatever resources they can muster. That is not to suggest that community resources should be considered as substitutes for adequate funding, but rather as necessary additions as we strive for both equal opportunity and equal outcomes.

To put it differently, Philadelphia cannot be a “world-class” city or an attractive place to live and do business if it chooses not to invest in its children in every way that it can.

I am acutely conscious that increasing investment in children’s health, education, and welfare will be a continuing struggle, both locally and nationally. Congress has been unwilling to address the income gap. The governor, mayor, state legislators, and City Council have basically been locked in political conflict, rather than joining forces to take responsibility and act on parent and community concern for quality Philadelphia schools. The evidence, both locally and nationally, is that the American promise of equal opportunity has been broken.

We, the people, have forgotten our collective commitment “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

That does not mean that Philadelphians should accept our situation. Collectively, we need to show what is possible when, in the interest of the general welfare, an entire community commits to educating all its children well.


James H. Lytle is Practice Professor of Educational Leadership at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, a former District administrator, and a former superintendent in Trenton.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Comments (22)

Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 5, 2014 10:06 pm

As you clearly stated, the number one indicator of success in school is the socio-economic level of the child's family. Wealth means good health care, good pre-natal care, good nutrition and less stress for the child. School can do a lot but cannot make up for all the damage in a child's home life.

That said, you already gave a list of what works. And all the reasons why a fair education funding formula is essential. I visited a low-income school today where they received all kinds of supplies from a charitable community group, but there is still not enough money for books. That kind of situation only compounds the effects of poverty.  There is no excuse for that kind of educational neglect.

Submitted by Annony (not verified) on September 6, 2014 7:24 am

While I agree we need "partnerships" with community organizations, universities, etc, funding public education is not a "feel good, charitable" event.  Comcast loves to paint a school for a day.  Univ of Penn loves to brag about its "gem" (Penn Alexander school).  The Mayor loves to show its collection of school supplies.  Handing out backpacks to 5 years old is not funding public educaiton.  Changing  the mindset from  chump change and  charity  is the only way public education will be viable in ten years.  Those in power make sure their kids / grandkids are taken care of - Obama is the prime example.  This perpetuates the oligarchial system that is running the U.S.

Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 6, 2014 9:11 am

Agree completely. Years ago there was an "Adopt a School" that partnered various schools with Philadelphia based businesses and sports teams. This was mostly a form of free publicity for the business. While it is nice for charities to donate supplies for students, of course, this is not the same as having a fully funded school with smaller class sizes, counselors, nurses, librarians and other support staff on a daily basis.

I recall a poster from the 60's that said: "Will the day ever come when education is fully funded and we have to hold a bake sale to buy a bomber?"

Submitted by anonymousl (not verified) on September 6, 2014 11:11 am

"Mustering resources" in lieu of funding public schools is the new norm as otherwise responsible public servants and university spokespersons shrug off the responsibility to fight for a higher level of funding. What is so tiring for those of us in the trenches is that we now need to spend every moment off duty fighting for these rights which should be self evident.

Penn Graduate School of Education pays lip service to caring about urban education while opening a new Education Entrepreneurship program for those who wish to profit from "public" entities.  It makes sense that trust is so low in our public servants and our hometown ivy league institution. Frustrating for all (even some affiliated with Penn who are not happy with this direction) and very sad.


Submitted by Annony (not verified) on September 6, 2014 12:12 pm

Penn Graduate School of Education was also key in bringing Teach for American (TFA) to Philly in 2005.  Penn profited and continues to profit mightly from TFA which profits from the SDP.  (The SRC voted to "buy" 10 TFAers this year... to do what, teach special ed with their 5 weeks of "experience?)  

Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 6, 2014 10:48 pm

Of course behind all these moves is the profit motive and the urge to turn all things "public" into a business.  It worries me when I hear the word "partnership" overused by any instttution, but particularly universities.

I am appalled by the use of TFAs anywhere but in special ed, it is surreal.

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on September 6, 2014 11:10 am

Extensive research over time and geography proven that a CERTIFIED SCHOOL LIBRARIAN, staffing a well-resourced school library, statistically improves students' academic outcomes, especially children in poverty.  Although the Free Library of Philadelphia is frequently designated as a viable alternative to a CERTIFIED SCHOOL LIBRARIAN in every school, the research does not support that scenario.  The FLP, instead, should not be considered the primary library resource for our city's children, but an important ADDITIONAL community resource for them.

CERTIFIED SCHOOL LIBRARIANS in a well-resourced library deliver incredible return on investment in tight school financial situations, statistically proven in improve student academic outcomes.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2014 3:22 pm

I have a friend who showed up on Tuesday to the most disgusting and truly heinous school library. Mouse droppings, mold, dust, boxes all over the place and other random junk. The answer isn't just to open up all the closed libraries. The answer is to make sure they have resources and tools to serve our students and to especially make sure that they are sanitary after years of neglect.  That particular school didn't have a librarian for years. The principal thought to open it but did not think much beyond that. The library hadn't been cleaned for years and became a haven for vermin. The School District of Philadelphia has to do much better. Handing a child a book contaminated by mouse droppings isn't my idea of a quality education.

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on September 6, 2014 3:01 pm

Note my reference to "well-resourced school libraries."

Thanks for your attention to the second-class nature of supports for both teachers (in this case, CERTIFIED SCHOOL LIBRARIANS) and students.

Has anyone else considered the danger to our disproportionately asthmatic student population due to less clean classrooms in the coming school year?

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on September 6, 2014 3:09 pm

Correction to above (my apologies):

CERTIFIED SCHOOL LIBRARIANS in well-resourced libraries deliver incredible return on investment in tight school financial situations.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 6, 2014 11:57 am

I like this one Torch. Especially this paragraph:

We, the people, have forgotten our collective commitment “to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” 

That is the "Imperative of Democracy" which I have written so much about.


Democracy is the sine qua non for Greatness in our public schools.

Submitted by Lisa Haver on September 6, 2014 11:40 am


Hello Torch,

I believe that there are a number of problems with public/private partnerships.  First, every time we find someone else to fund schools, it means that the state feels less pressure to do it. When we find someone else to provide services, it takes the pressure off of the district to provide them.  When we find people— part-time and unqualified—to fill in certain jobs, it means that the students will not have access to full-time professionals trained in their fields.

Another problem with cultivating partnerships with outside non-profits and corporations  is that it is based on a lot of “ifs”:  If the school has the time and personnel to write a persuasive grant proposal; if the partner is willing to let the school use its best judgment on how the money should be spent;  if there is no change in leadership who  may want to spend the corporation’s money in a different way; if the school is close to the partner, as Penn Alexander is to Penn.  And these partnerships and grants are not made in perpetuity, so what happens when the funding dries up? 

 There are a lot of ways in which we are becoming a two-tiered system.  Parents in some schools are making dedicated monthly payments so that those schools can buy back counselor and teacher positions.  The district is allotting more money and resources to some schools, while letting others flounder until they can be labeled “failing” and closed.  Private foundations are giving millions every year to the schools of their choice and no one else’s.

While these outside entities may be contributing to schools with the best of intentions, we have to be aware of the pitfalls of traveling down this road. 


Submitted by Annony (not verified) on September 6, 2014 12:43 pm

Wealthy public districts like Radnor and Lower Merion and private schools from Episcopal Academy to all the Quaker schools, do not rely on "maybe" partnerships and grants.  They have dedicated funding to ensure a top knotch education is available for their students.  Relying on grants and "community partnerships" means some students get supports and others do not.  For example, Gear Up provides a lot of supports to one group of students .  Meanwhile, all the other students  in the school get nothing.  The Phila. Education Fund program is the same - a few students benefit rather than all.  This fits with the oligarchy's willingness to open the cracks to a few but certainly not the many.

Submitted by Eileen Duffey (not verified) on September 6, 2014 1:23 pm

"Parents in some schools are making dedicated monthly payments so that those schools can buy back counselor and teacher positions."

Don't forget that this also applies to school nurse positions. Mereditih School held a fundraiser in order to pay for two additional days of school nurse service. Let me be clear that I applaud the parents for caring about the physical safety of their children while in school. I also recognize that making monthly contributions constitutes a significant sacrifice for many families. Is this sustainable? Will this lead to resentment on the part of parents? Will it lead to middle class flight from the city? Are students in poorer schools less deserving?

We need to keep insisting that the truth be told about well intentioned efforts to keep schools going in the face of funding deficits. Philanthropists engaged in "partnerships" seem to have a need to feel good about their generosity. Nothing about the way we are resourcing our public schools should leave anyone feeling good.

Submitted by Rich Migliore (not verified) on September 6, 2014 4:27 pm


I think this article says a whole lot about what you, Carol, Eleen and Annoy mean. Leave it to Texas judge to speak the truth.

Thanks, ELC for pointing me to the decision. What is happening to our constitutional challenge of our state funding disgrace? Is our PA Supreme Court going to stick to its "not judiciable?" 

Or is the Lion going to find its Courage as Justice Castille so laments.


Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 6, 2014 9:12 pm

Hi, Lisa, I agree with all you say about a slippery slope of abrogated responsibilities  I do have to add, however, that, once in a while, a grant comes in handy for special enrichment  projects, that exist outside the school's normal activities. I am  thinking for example of a grant to produce a play or paint a mural. Even if the school has an arts program, such special projects might not fit the budget. Or for example, some schools might want to fund a roof garden. Parents do a lot of fund raising for things like that. Even affluent or elite schools ask parents to support special programs.

Parents should not be expected to hold fundraisers to hire staff or buy basic supplies.

Submitted by Lisa Haver on September 7, 2014 9:36 am

I agree, Gloria, that a on-time grant can help with a special project,  but I think we are talking about something much bigger here.  We talk about "partnerships", but you really can't have a partnership with someone who is much bigger and more powerful than you are.  A school with 900 students by definition cannot partner with Merrill Lynch or HUP.  In addition, a large corporation, for-profit or non-, does not share the interests of a public school.  We are really talking, I think, about benefactors, not partners.

One of the new departments Hite has created is the Office of Strategic Partnerships.  This is not about getting money from grantors.  It is about replacing full-time professional (union) jobs with part-timers or volunteers according to the interests of the "partners".

Submitted by gloriaendres (not verified) on September 7, 2014 9:38 pm

Lisa, thanks for the information. I had no idea the plans for commercialization of our schools had advanced that far. I always figured they were looking to replace long term professionals with temporary workers.  No pensions to worry about, or professional salaries for veteran teachers.The  whole idea behind the ending of seniority rights is to make it easier to dismiss older, more expensive teachers.

Awful, awful, awful.

Submitted by Carol W. Heinsdorf, M.S.L.S., N.B.C.T. (not verified) on September 6, 2014 11:33 am

Correction to above (my apologies):

CERTIFIED SCHOOL LIBRARIANS in well-resourced libraries deliver incredible return on investment in tight school financial situations.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 6, 2014 9:50 pm
"Until 1975, U.S. schools did a reasonable job at providing equal opportunity..." I guess Torch never heard about "separate but equal." It was struck down in 1954, took decades to legally undo. The truth is that the US has NEVER provided anything remotely close to equal opportunity in public education. And the truth is that equity is the only solution. That's why many countries with less overall wealth outpace US schools, because they have less wealth inequity. Equity, quite simply, IS adequacy. Of course, adequate resources does not guarantee good schools. But it is a prerequisite. Lack of adequate and equitable resources does guarantee bad schools and always will, regardless of however many "partnerships" those schools have.
Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on September 7, 2014 10:18 pm


let me summarize: government resources aren't coming and they won't help anyway because money doesn't matter, instead we need to ask private philanthropy to give their resources.  And somehow we are to believe that those private resources ARE readily available and that somehow, unlike government resources, those resources will help.  What a crock. Editors, please revoke his notebook blogger status.

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