In northwest Pennsylvania, along the edge of Lake Erie, you'll find the city of Erie.
There, the superintendent of the more than 12,000-student district has forwarded a plan that's causing a stir — calling for leaders to consider shutting down all of the district's high schools and sending students to the wealthier, whiter, suburban districts.
Superintendent Jay Badams says it's a "matter of fairness."
Erie's schools have been pushed to the brink after six years of deep budget cuts, and he believes the children in the city's district — which predominantly serves students of color — are being systematically shortchanged.
That's in part because urban school districts in Pennsylvania face a particularly brutal logic.
They serve the poorest, most needy students. Yet, when it comes to state funding per pupil, most of them don't make the top of the list.
Even though Erie is one of the most impoverished districts in the state, and has one of the highest percentages of English language learners, the district currently receives less per-pupil funding from the state than hundreds of other districts.
Excluding pension costs, per-pupil spending in Erie is less than it was in 2008-09.
"If our students would need to attend schools in other districts in order to have some sort of equity, then that may end up being the most ethical and moral decision," Badams says.
What about the students?
The signs of Erie's fiscal distress would be hard for students to overlook.
"There's a perception out there that kids living in poverty, kids living in the inner city, don't know what they're missing," Badams says. "Well, they do know what they're missing."
Many of the aging school buildings have crumbling infrastructure. Books and technology have lagged behind the times.
"We're a city school and the surrounding districts are higher income, and they always think that they're better than us," says Nathan Stevens, a junior a Strong Vincent High School on the city's west side. "That's just how it works around here."
Stevens, who is white, was one of a handful of students gathered in the school library at the end of the school year to talk about the plan to bus students out to those higher-income districts.
"Everybody thinks it's a ghetto school, or that the people that go here are dumb, or bad," Whitney Henderson says. She's a year younger than Stevens and is African-American.
She worries about what Badams' proposal would mean for her.
"If I went to Harbor Creek, or if I went to McDowell, I'd feel like an outcast because of my skin color, because I'm black," says Henderson. "And everybody that goes there is pretty much white."
Genene Mattern's children attend school in the Millcreek School District, in Erie County, one that might absorb kids from the city if the closure plan goes into effect.
"I get a little upset when I hear other parents who are against it totally, because they don't want 'Erie city kids,' " says Mattern.
"Now you're almost trying to put a racial spin on it, and that to me is wrong. They're children. I don't care what color, what ethnic background, what social background, they deserve a chance."
And many of the superintendents in outlying districts, including Millcreek, have said much the same.
So, too, has Sean Wiley, a Democratic state senator who represents Erie and the immediate suburbs.
"These are not city kids. These are not county kids," he says. "These are our kids across this entire region."
But the proposal has been the subject of vitriol on social media, where some parents have disparaged Erie students and parents.
And some public officials, including state Rep. Curt Sonney, a Republican who represents a slew of outlying districts, don't necessarily think it's a good idea, either: "It's difficult on any student to have to bus them for miles to a strange new school with all new people."
A "tying mechanism"
There's a growing body of educators and researchers who say that figuring out the logistics of this proposal would be well worth the extra effort.
At their core, integration plans are a tying mechanism, says Kimberly Quick.
"If the outcomes and the benefits that a school can provide to the son of a janitor are tied to those of the son of a congressman, then they are more likely to get those resources, right?" asks Quick, a policy associate at the Century Foundation, a D.C.-based think tank that advocates for school integration.
Century says this happens, in large part, based on the superior quality and quantity of resources and teachers that are generally made available to richer and whiter schools.
"And that's how we need to frame this, instead of making it sound like something magical happens when black kids sit next to white kids," says Quick.
Century also argues that suburban parents don't need to worry about a negative effect on their children. "There's no evidence that points to that," Quick adds.
A county comparison
The issue in Erie is even more complicated because of Pennsylvania's education funding policies. For most of the past 25 years, the state has distributed money without a rational, student-based formula.
So although Erie is one of the state's most challenged districts, the state sends more money per pupil from its main pot of cash to most other districts in the county — including wealthier ones, with less pressing needs, that already have an easier time raising local funds.
"The differences between the resources we have in the county compared to in here are just shocking," said Brian Polito, chief financial officer for Erie public schools.
Polito used to have a similar job in North East, a rural district in Erie County. Drawing a comparison, he says last year Erie spent $6,000 on its 18 libraries.
"In the school district that I came from, we had three libraries and our budget for library resources was almost $40,000."
It's examples like these that have Millcreek parent Genene Mattern completely supporting the stand that superintendent Jay Badams has taken on closing the city's high schools.
"People need to get mad. People need to get loud, because the more you just sit and let it happen, I think the more they figure, well, they're OK with that," she says.
The Erie district did receive a modicum of relief in the state budget that recently passed, including a $3.4 million boost in basic education funds, and a one-time $4 million emergency supplement.
But the systemic issues will persist, and Erie's finances are slated to be in the same straits by the end of the school year.
And the entire situation raises a larger question:
Would Erie's crisis even be happening if it was a majority white district?
Erie, and many other urban districts with a majority of students of color, would see a windfall if state leaders chose to implement the state's new student-weighted funding formula more aggressively. But they haven't.
"I don't think so, but then I just question," says Dominique Booker, a student at Strong Vincent High School in Erie City. "I really don't know. It's a really hard question, because you look ... and they have more money, more stuff, but I don't want to think that way."
RAY SUAREZ, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.