“We have a hunch that the continuum of disparity would be less of an ocean and more of a creek if the students in this state were treated equally and equitably in what resources they were given and what opportunities they received,” Dr. Jonathan Peri said.
Chester-Upland School District and Radnor Township School District sit about 15 minutes from each other, but academic results between the two couldn’t be farther from each other.
According to 2018 data, Radnor Township was among the top two school districts in Pennsylvania. Students produced an average ACT score of 28, equivalent to an 1325 on the SAT with a 99% graduation rate. Chester-Upland students were found to be eight percent proficient in math, 18 percent proficient in reading with a 51 percent graduation rate.
The issue, despite the short distance, is the insufficient funding received by Chester-Upland due to Pennsylvania’s funding system for school districts, said Manor College President Dr. Jonathan Peri.
“Pennsylvania’s constitution woefully fails in calling for equity in education,” Dr. Peri said last year, during his farewell address as the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Council for Higher Education in January 2022.
The solution, he said, lay in the hands of the Pennsylvania court system.
“The courts can cure the problem of inequitable public funding because the legislature is unwilling to act meaningfully,” he said. “It’s our courts that need to awaken to their inner duty to hear and properly decide the cases that ask for equity in public school funding, like the William Penn case being heard.”
A year after his remarks, Dr. Peri’s public advocacy materialized. On Feb. 7, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system was unconstitutional in conclusion to the William Penn School District case.
In a 786-page decision, Judge Jubelirer wrote, “Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes.” This is something that Dr. Peri had been saying for more than a dozen years while on the State Board of Education.
In an interview with WHYY, an attorney for the school district said the ruling is an earthquake that will, “reverberate for the children of Pennsylvania for a long, long time.”
What Comes Next
While Dr. Peri is thrilled about the decision, questions remain as to what the new system would look like. Currently, Pennsylvania ranks 44th in public school funding systems in the country. Dr. Peri sees this as a chance to move up in the rankings.
“We will now see what mettle the leadership of this state is made of, and whether they make the right decisions dependent upon what is morally just, or if they squander the moment and bow to the politically expedient,” Dr. Peri said. “Now is a pivotal moment in the Commonwealth’s history. For Pennsylvania, right now is a bright, shining civil rights moment.”
How Manor College Helps
Manor College sees the impact of the ruling through students served. Many of Manor College’s students come from the districts most affected by current inequitable funding.
“Higher education sees the disparity among students in their educational attainment and their development, and we see the injustice in it,” Dr. Peri said. “Our purpose is to help every student to achieve, and to offer great support to the students who need it the most.”
Manor College’s purpose is to further those who are well prepared and to prepare those who haven’t had the benefit of a funding system that gives them the same opportunity.
“We do that no matter the primary and secondary public school system funding,” Dr. Peri said, “but we have a hunch that the continuum of disparity would be less of an ocean and more of a creek if the students in this state were treated equally and equitably in what resources they were given and what opportunities they received.”
Since its inception, Manor College has continued to serve students, many of whom come from districts affected by the inequitable funding. More than 65 percent of Manor College students are first-generation college students. With class size ratios averaging 12 to 1, it’s a chance to benefit students who didn’t receive the attention or opportunities that would have helped them while growing up.
“We have fashioned ourselves to be among the institutions that closes the gap the best,” Dr. Peri said. “We do a really great job of helping every student to reach their greatest potential. We do our earnest best to help them achieve their life’s goals, for themselves and for their families, so that they will, in turn, give of themselves to others. That is our work. That is our prayer.”