On a warm, sunny afternoon in early April, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona paced the halls of Beverly Hills Middle School in Upper Darby, Pennsylvania – one of the most rapidly diversifying and chronically underfunded school districts in the country. He walked alongside a facilities director who pointed out where the air flow was weak, where it was strong and how that determined the number of students that could be in certain parts of the aging building.
The 13,000-student school district – a sprawling suburban outcrop nestled along the western edge of Philadelphia, where earlier that morning Cardona had visited an elementary school as part of his “Help is Here” school reopening tour – needs all the help it can get.
More than 1,000 English learners are enrolled in the high poverty district and roughly 3,000 have special needs. Its immigrant population is exploding and students there speak nearly 80 different languages. The schools themselves, some more than a century old, need $180 million in repairs. And in Pennsylvania – a state that’s been embroiled in equity funding lawsuits for the last decade – Upper Darby is one of the most underfunded districts in the state, to the tune of $20 million annually.
“It means a lot that you came here to see us,” Superintendent Daniel McGarry told Cardona. “A lot of times in school districts like Upper Darby, especially at schools like Beverly Hills, where you pour your heart and soul into working with children every single day, you feel like you’re forgotten.”
The secretary’s visit was important signaling from President Joe Biden, who’s made reopening schools for in-person learning a top priority in his first 100 days and directed roughly $140 billion to school districts to help them return students to classrooms – especially for communities like Upper Darby, where the vast majority of children are still learning remotely.
The district is getting $35 million from the most recent coronavirus relief package – $55 million in total from the three tranches of federal aid Congress has passed since the onset of the pandemic.
“While it sounds like it’s a decent amount – and don’t get me wrong, we’re extremely appreciative, please, that we are getting funding like this at such a difficult time – but we’re underfunded $20 million as it is in one of the most underfunded state public education school systems in the country,” McGarry says, ticking off a long list of needs.
“I don’t want to be rude,” he says, “but $55 million is a drop in the bucket.”