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In Erie, Pa., the schools have been strapped for money for so long, the school superintendent is threatening to shut down district high schools and bus his students to wealthier schools in the suburbs. But as WHYY's Kevin McCorry reports, there may be more to this story than meets the eye.
KEVIN MCCORRY, BYLINE: Earlier this summer, busloads of people from Erie made the nearly five-hour trek to the State Capitol to deliver a simple message to any lawmaker who would listen. They stood on the steps of the Grande Rotunda chanting fund our schools.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Please fund our schools. Please...
MCCORRY: Leading the group was Jay Badams, who has become the most vocal, moral-crusading superintendent in the state.
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JAY BADAMS: We can't take any more away from our children, so I'm asking all of you to just please, please remember Erie.
MCCORRY: In May, Badams made headlines for drawing a line in the sand. After six years of deep budget cuts, he said Erie schools had been pushed to the brink, so he floated a seemingly crazy idea - shutting down all of the city's high schools and bussing students to the surrounding higher-income suburban schools.
So how did Erie end up in this position? In large part because state policy has stacked the deck against urban districts where enrollment has grown and needs are high. In all of Erie County, the district inside the city is by far the poorest and most challenged. But it fares worse than many of the others when it comes to per pupil state funding. Badams can't fathom that, and so to him this proposal of sending students to the suburbs is an ethical one.
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BADAMS: There's a perception out there that kids living in poverty, kids living in the inner city don't know what they're missing. I've heard people say that. Well, they do know what they're missing.
MCCORRY: The signs of Erie's fiscal distress would be hard for students to overlook. Many of the schools are visibly aging, books and technology have lagged behind the times and staffing levels have been cut at the same time the city's violent crime rate has grown. Nathan Stevens is a junior at Strong Vincent High School on the city's west side.
NATHAN STEVENS: We're a city school, and the surrounding districts are higher income. And they always think that they're better than us. That's just how it works around here.
MCCORRY: Stevens, who's white, was one of a handful of students gathered in Strong Vincent's library at the end of the school year to discuss the bussing proposal. Whitney Henderson, a sophomore who's African-American, agreed with Stevens.
WHITNEY HENDERSON: Everybody thinks that it's a ghetto school or that the people that go here are dumb or bad.
MCCORRY: Based on what?
MCCORRY: Students of color are the majority in Erie, a vast difference from the rest of the county, so Henderson is anxious about what Badams' proposal could mean for her.
WHITNEY: I'd feel like an outcast because of my skin color because I'm black, and everybody that goes there is pretty much white.
MCCORRY: In a cozy coffee shop outside of Erie, suburban mom Genene Mattern says she'd welcome the city students into her district.
GENENE MATTERN: I get a little bit upset when I hear other parents that are against it totally because they don't want Erie city kids. You know what? They're children. I don't care what color, what ethnic background, what social background. They deserve a chance.
MCCORRY: Representative Curt Sonney, a Republican who represents a slew of suburban districts, takes a different view, pointing to logistics.
CURT SONNEY: Well, we just - we can't let that happen. It's difficult on any student to have to bus them for miles to a strange new school with all new people, you know. It's tough.
MCCORRY: But there's a growing national charge that says figuring out the logistics would actually be well worth the extra effort. Research shows that race and class integration can be a major boon for historically underserved students without having a negative effect on those from higher-income families. The entire prospect, though, begs a larger question. In Pennsylvania, the legislative leadership represent rural, whiter districts that have benefited from policies that have historically hurt cities like Erie. Would Erie's crisis even be happening if it was a majority white district? I posed that to Dominique Booker, another student at Strong Vincent High.
DOMINIQUE BOOKER: I really don't know. It's a really hard question because you look and they have, like, more money. They have better stuff, but I don't want to think that way.
MCCORRY: For NPR News, I'm Kevin McCorry in Pennsylvania.
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