We are experiencing COVID-related supply chain delays. Please note, orders are currently taking 10-15 days to be delivered.
We thank you for your understanding and patience.
Penn Press logo
The Roots of Educational Inequality

The Roots of Educational Inequality chronicles the transformation of one American high school over the course of the twentieth century to explore the larger political, economic, and social factors that have contributed to the escalation of educational inequality in modern America.

The Roots of Educational Inequality
Philadelphia's Germantown High School, 1907-2014

Erika M. Kitzmiller

Dec 2021 | 352 pages | Cloth $45.00
American History / Social Science / General
View main book page

Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Campaign for an Elite Public High School in Philadelphia's Suburban Sanctuary, 1907-1914
Chapter 2. Philanthropy Sustains Philadelphia's Expanding Public School System, 1914-1920
Chapter 3. Philadelphia's Reliance on Philanthropy Begins to Crack, 1929-1940
Chapter 4. Philadelphia Mobilizes for War, Inequality on the Homefront Escalates, 1941-1957
Chapter 5. Urban Renewal, Urban Unrest, and the Threat of a "Poverty-Stricken Negro Ghetto," 1958-1967
Chapter 6. The Emergence of an "Urban" School System: Fiscal Shortages, Labor Strikes, and Stalled
Desegregation, 1968-1981
Chapter 7. Philadelphia School Leaders Fight to Restore and Control Philadelphia's Public Schools, 1982-2000
Chapter 8. Philadelphia Implements the "Largest and Boldest Experiment" in Urban Public Education, 2002-2011
Chapter 9. School Officials Close Schools to "Save" Philadelphia's Public School System


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


At the turn of the 20th century, Germantown, a community in Philadelphia's northwest corner, was home to a diverse group of individuals, but mainly to wealthy white residents who preferred the city's suburban periphery to its inner core. While Germantown's bourgeois residents beamed with pride about their isolated community, they were deeply concerned about their children, particularly their native-born white daughters, traveling to and from the city's limited set of high schools located in the bustling city center. Beginning in 1907, Germantown residents waged a successful seven-year campaign to build a majestic neighborhood high school tucked neatly away in their quaint secluded community.

When Germantown High School opened in 1915, the school offered a first-rate academic curriculum with coursework in Latin, Greek, Botany, and Rhetoric. Students were taught by teachers that were experts in their field, such as Dr. Anne Mullikin, the first woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, Germantown students enrolled in the nation's leading colleges and universities. Young men, like Forrest W. Brainerd, attended colleges such as Harvard, Princeton, and Haverford, while young women, such as Barbara Manley, went to schools such as Radcliffe, Wellesley, and Smith. Eventually, many Germantown graduates assumed roles as leaders in Philadelphia's business and civic life. At the turn of the 20th century, Germantown High School was regarded as one of the leading secondary schools in the nation. Residents believed that it provided its graduates with a first-rate academic education and the necessary credentials to secure a prosperous future.

Almost a century later, newspaper headlines featured Germantown High School. However, unlike earlier coverage that had celebrated the school's academic programs, this news signaled the school's demise. On December 13, 2012, William Hite, the superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, announced that Germantown High School was one of 37 schools slated for closure due to enrollment decreases, low achievement, and a district-wide fiscal crisis. According to Hite's report, the school district's crisis stemmed from decades of flight from the public school system, district mismanagement, and inadequate public aid. In response, Philadelphians took to the streets to denounce state officials who had slashed millions in educational aid. Principals begged their families to donate hundreds of dollars to make up for these funding losses. And families did what they could—they opened their checkbooks and wallets and donated their own money to guarantee that their children's public schools had basic educational resources. The reliance on private philanthropy bolstered budgets in the city's most affluent public schools that served the city's most advantaged children; principals in the city's poorest public schools had to find a way to cope with grossly inadequate public aid. For months, Germantown High School administrators, teachers, and alumni collaborated with elected officials and community members to find a way to keep their nearly 100-year-old neighborhood high school open. They hosted rallies, attended community-wide discussions, and proposed alternatives. But school officials voted to close the school. On June 21, 2013, teachers packed their classrooms, moved their belongings, and shut the doors to Germantown High School.

The Roots of Educational Inequality explores the political, economic, and social factors that transformed American high schools and contributed to the broader escalation of social inequality in America over the past 100 years. This study deepens our understanding of urban school inequality by pushing the story further into the past to show how the interactions of class, race, resources, and space help account for the ways that demographic change, white flight, and white resistance transformed the American high school and, in this case, ultimately led to closing of Germantown High. Despite the wealth of scholarship on urban communities and schools, this is the first book to trace the history of one high school in the context of its community and city over the entire 20th century, deploying a longitudinal analysis that investigates daily events rather than focusing solely on key turning points. While this approach required many hard choices about what to include, as a teacher, researcher, and activist, I felt that telling this story in this manner was the only way that I could do justice to the long arc of injustice, inequity, and resistance in our nation's public schools and communities.

The approach shows that Germantown High's 21st-century crisis stemmed from choices that school leaders made over the course of the school's 100-year history, beginning, of course, with the high school's founding. The challenges of racial segregation, fiscal instability, and philanthropic subsidies are not the simple byproducts of postwar white flight, failed desegregation, and neoliberal reforms. These structural shortcomings have existed since American public high schools were founded at the turn of the 20th century. There were always alternatives, other paths that individuals might have taken, to create a more just and equitable system of schools. As this story shows, sometimes they took those paths; sometimes they did not.
While The Roots of Educational Inequality acknowledges the role of postwar residential and economic flight, it insists that public schools never had sufficient public resources to operate effectively. Rather than raise taxes to the levels required to fund city schools, urban school districts instead relied on philanthropy to subsidize inadequate government aid. While this philanthropy provided essential support to urban public schools, the dependency on private funds generated spatial inequities based on race and class and often masked the inability of urban school districts to fund their schools with public revenues. This masking, of course, was more likely to occur in bourgeois white communities, such as Germantown, where upper- and middle-class residents could afford to supplement inadequate public school budgets with their own private funds. While many scholars have examined the connections between philanthropy and education, none of these works illustrates how local philanthropy created what I call doubly advantaged schools. Doubly advantaged schools served more white and affluent students and thus could leverage and rely on private philanthropy to subsidize inadequate public aid because the families that sent their children to these schools had more social and financial capital to give. As this story shows, the location of these doubly advantaged schools changed as the city's spatial patterns of class and race changed over time. At the turn of the 20th century, Germantown High School was a doubly advantaged school, but by the turn of the 21st century, it was not.

While other cities, including Cleveland, Detroit, and St. Louis, relied on philanthropy to subsidize inadequate public school funding in the early 20th century, Philadelphia is an ideal place to study the ways in which class, race, resources, and space worked together to sustain and transform the public school landscape. When Philadelphia expanded its system of public high schools in the early 20th century, critics argued that the city was poised to have one of the finest systems in the country. Only a year after Germantown High School opened, however, Philadelphia's school board argued that the city lacked the financial resources to fund its schools adequately and, instead, had to rely on philanthropy to make up the public budget shortfalls. Today, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has some of the nation's most inequitably funded public schools—high-poverty, majority-Black school districts, such as Philadelphia, often spend about 30% less per pupil than more affluent, majority-white school districts. The School District of Philadelphia, which serves the largest number of Black, Latinx, and poor youth in the state, spends approximately $13,000 per pupil each year. Lower Merion School District in the affluent Philadelphia suburb that borders the city's west side spends $23,000 per pupil each year. In the 21st century, inadequate public school funding still disproportionately harms schools that serve the nation's most vulnerable youth.
When the School District of Philadelphia expanded its system of high schools at the turn of the 20th century, school officials allowed Black and white youth to enroll in Germantown High School. While the school was far from integrated, the fact that school officials never legally segregated Black and white youth into separate schools allows one to examine the ways that race and racism shaped student access to the high school from its founding. Furthermore, because Germantown is a comprehensive, neighborhood high school, it allows me to study an institution that, at least in theory, was open to everyone who lived in the neighborhood. The high school opened in the first wave of 20th-century high school expansion—a time when many individuals hoped that American urban schools would serve as engines of democracy. As my analysis shows, however, only a small percentage of urban youth attended high school, and the vast majority of those who attended were upper class and white. This finding challenges the very notion that urban public schools served a democratizing function by offering opportunities to all American youth. The expansion of high schools at the turn of the 20th century democratized attendance—many more American youth had the opportunity to attend school compared to the late 19th century—but the seeds of inequality, particularly with regard to class, race, and space, were sown into the foundation of high schools located in racially, ethnically, and economically diverse urban areas.

Finally, Germantown is an ideal site to study this history because its residents have a deep appreciation and reverence for local history. Germantown teachers, alumni, and activists have preserved many archival sources such as the high school yearbooks and student newspapers that were so critical to my work. As an ethnographer first and historian second, I developed close relationships with these individuals. They willingly opened school storage areas, musty basements, and humid attics to share these sources with me. The oral histories that I did with Germantown youth, alumni/ae, and activists enhanced the archival sources tremendously. This diverse source base made it possible to tell the school's story from the inside—a point of view that is rarely documented in historical research on urban public schools.

Most scholarship links the demise of urban schools to postwar white racism and resistance to any policy that threatened to strip away the economic, educational, or social advantages of white middle-class families and their youth. Historians have documented the ways in which white middle-class families refused to integrate their neighborhoods, factories, and schools. They have also shown how, when white urban resistance proved useless, these families then purchased new homes and found new schools in the racially segregated suburbs. But, this history often focuses on the postwar period, which downplays the importance of the early 20th century in setting the foundation for these practices in the postwar period and today. In addition, it obscures the role that urban school finance has played in creating, maintaining, and promoting educational inequality. In contrast, this book illustrates the ways that white residents blocked proposals to build affordable integrated housing units, to end discriminatory labor practices, and to integrate urban public schools beginning far earlier in the century. It also illustrates how the structures and spatial distribution of urban school finance have created significant resource disparities between white and Black schools since as early as the turn of the 20th century. This system has generated unequal access to educational resources along the lines of race and class and, since the 1920s, has proven to be impervious to educational reforms that would equalize opportunities for low-income youth of color mainly because none of these reforms addressed the inequitable structures of urban school finance.

This book focuses on three central themes: the social organization of education and the construction of urban and metropolitan space; the political economy of urban education; and the failures of educational policy. The first theme illustrates how the American metropolis shaped and was shaped by its system of public schools. Since the founding of Germantown High School in 1915, school officials have supported an unequal system of schools that has privileged white and middle-class communities and disadvantaged Black and low-income communities. The policies and decisions that officials made about school construction, catchment areas, and resource allocations have intensified racial segregation and educational inequality. Often, these policies corresponded neatly with existing patterns of class- and race-based segregation in the metropolis and its schools. School district policies and practices reinforced and intensified patterns of class- and race-based segregation in the metropolis and its schools. School officials caved in to resident demands to build new, modern high schools, such as Germantown High School, on the city's periphery to retain and attract white middle-class families to the city's bourgeois enclaves. These policies privileged children of upper- and middle-class white families who moved from the city's center to its periphery and then out to its racially segregated suburbs.

School officials played an active role in creating policies and practices that intensified inequality. Throughout its history, Philadelphia school officials have maintained and often promoted a separate and unequal system of public schools: one system that serves upper- and middle-class white youth and another that serves the poor, Black, and Latinx youth. In the beginning of the 20th century, school officials preserved these two systems through gerrymandered school boundaries, racially biased hiring practices, and forced student transfers. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, school officials sustained this two-tiered system through market-based reforms aimed at expanding school choice and raising academic achievement. These reforms have forced the closure of 37 public schools and left thousands of low-income youth of color in under-resourced schools struggling to survive. Meanwhile white families have used their social and financial resources to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to support their children's public schools. Philadelphia's system of public schools has always been separate and unequal.

The book's second theme centers on the political economy of urban education. In this book, political economy refers to the ways that public policy and government regulation shaped the economic, political, and social welfare of American youth. This happened in at least two ways. First, the policy decisions that government and school officials made about school construction, curricular programs, and resource allocations influenced the reputation of individual high schools. High schools with newer buildings, academic programs, and higher per pupil expenditures were perceived as better, more desirable institutions. As the racial demographics of Philadelphia's public schools shifted and white middle-class families moved first to the city's periphery and then its suburbs, the reputation of Philadelphia's high schools shifted. As schools became more bourgeois and white, the schools' reputations improved. As schools served more poor, Black, and Latinx students, their reputations declined. In other words, the reputation of the school often corresponded with the class and racial composition of the students inside the building. In the past and today, upper- and middle-class families, who had the financial and social capital to exercise choice on the educational marketplace, moved their families to the communities with the city's most reputable schools. These decisions ultimately affected the racial composition, and eventually the intensification of segregation, in Philadelphia's public schools. This chain reaction—district-level policies, demographic shifts, and individual choices—shaped the reputation of Philadelphia's public schools and the demographics of the students who enrolled in them.

Taken together, these factors also shaped the value of the high school credential. Even though every high school offered the same credential (a high school diploma), these educational credentials had vastly different values in the educational marketplace. The value corresponded to two things. First, it corresponded to the high school's reputation. Credentials from more reputable, academically oriented, and better resourced predominately white, middle-class schools had a higher value than those from less reputable, vocationally oriented, and poorly resourced Black and low-income schools. For example, a diploma from the elite Central High School or the bourgeois Germantown High School had a higher value in the labor market than a credential from a high school located in a Black community, such as Simon Gratz or Benjamin Franklin High School. This was because school districts' officials implemented different curricular programs in each school. As the residential demographics of neighborhoods shifted, the curricular programs changed. Underfunded and ill-conceived vocational programs replaced prestigious and attractive academic programs as neighborhood schools moved from predominantly white and middle-class schools to predominantly Black and low-income schools beginning in the late 1930s and early 1940s. These curricular shifts and educational disinvestment, which were intimately tied to race and class, weakened the reputation, and in turn, the value of the credential from the high schools that served the majority of Philadelphia's poor youth of color.

Second, the credential's value often corresponded to a student's race once they graduated. This was due in part to the racial discrimination that students experienced in the high school and eventually in the labor market. Evidence demonstrates that Black youth, even those who graduated from Germantown High School with an academic diploma, faced racial discrimination inside their schools and in the labor market that barred them from many of the economic opportunities that their white peers enjoyed. Germantown faculty routinely tried to dissuade Black youth from enrolling in the school's academic program and often encouraged them to select its commercial or vocational programs. Hundreds of Black youth defied this advice and earned an academic diploma, but then as this work shows, had to settle for unskilled and service jobs due to racial discrimination in the city's labor market. School-district policies, internal school practices, and labor-market discrimination created a stratified educational credentials market: a market that ascribed a higher value for a credential earned by Philadelphia's white and upper- and middle-class youth and a lesser value for a credential earned by the city's Black and working-class youth.

In addition to the ways that the credentials both afforded and constrained opportunity and mobility, school funding policies and practices also influenced the political economy of urban education. Scholarship that attributes the demise of urban education to a decline in school funding argues that there was a golden age of education at the turn of the 20th century—when public officials and civic leaders used public dollars to fully fund urban public schools. According to these scholars, as white flight occurred, the tax revenues that once supported a robust system of urban public schools vanished. This book directly challenges this view. It argues that state and city officials never funded urban schools adequately. Since the beginning of the 20th century, urban school districts have lacked the tax revenues needed to operate their schools. Rather than raising taxes, urban school districts such as Philadelphia, Detroit, and Cleveland instead relied on private philanthropy to subsidize insufficient government aid. The dependence on philanthropy intensified educational inequality between and inside the city's schools. Upper- and middle-class white families, such as those in Germantown, supported their children's schools through private, philanthropic efforts. Schools in these communities were able to offer a first-rate education because upper- and middle-class white families supplemented grossly inadequate public budgets with their own funds. School administrators used these funds to purchase textbooks, modernize classrooms, and support extracurricular programs.

These philanthropic efforts extended beyond the schoolhouse. Bourgeois families also donated time and money to a dense network of recreational clubs, philanthropic organizations, and social agencies that provided an array of privately funded health and recreational activities outside of school in middle-class neighborhoods. The spatial patterning of race and class (first by neighborhoods within the city and then between the city and its surrounding suburbs) benefited white upper- and middle-class youth by giving them access to educational and recreational resources that were largely unavailable to poor and Black youth because their families lived in different neighborhoods and lacked the private resources to compensate for shortfalls in urban school budgets.

This reliance on philanthropy generated significant funding differentials between schools in affluent white communities and schools in poor Black communities, which exacerbated racial and class-based educational inequality. These differentials created doubly advantaged schools like Germantown at the turn of the 20th century, and as we will see, like other schools in the Center City district at the turn of the 21st century. Doubly advantaged schools had more private funding because they served wealthier youth. Furthermore, the overreliance on philanthropy masked the school district's inability to fund its schools—a reality that became painfully clear to everyone at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st as the world weathered the 2008 recession and the COVID-19 pandemic. This book demonstrates that money indeed matters. Money has always provided upper-class, middle-class, and white youth with educational and social opportunities and advantages that poor, Black, and Latinx youth did not always have access to.

This history also forces us to grapple with the fact that the boundary between the public and the private in education (and in other social welfare programs) has been much more porous than many scholars recognize. Private funding of public schools by families, foundations, and communities is not a 21st-century phenomenon. Rather, the practice and dependency on philanthropy to fund American public schools has a long and storied history. This book shows that better state funding for public schools has not and will not, alone, equalize resources among schools—not even among those within the same school district. That is because parents in different neighborhoods do not have the same capacity to leverage private resources to benefit their children. Wealthy families have more social and financial capital, and thus, they can donate more money, resources, and time to their schools.

Finally, the book focuses on the failures of education policy to translate ideas and recommendations into school reforms that might create more just and equitable educational outcomes for all youth. For decades, educational reformers have tried to put policies in place to match high school curricula to labor market needs and students' vocational aims. As this story illustrates, Germantown High School, at least initially, was immune from these reforms because it was a largely white upper- and middle-class institution with a mission to prepare its graduates for postsecondary schooling and futures as middle-class professionals and wives. Despite this mission, Germantown faculty routinely barred Black youth from the school's academic programs and instead encouraged them to enroll in the school's commercial program.

For decades, Black youth refused to comply with racist policies and practices in their schools. From 1920 to 1950, contrary to conventional wisdom, Black youth were significantly more likely to enroll in Germantown's academic program than white youth. The Black youth who graduated from Germantown High School in the first half of the 20th century understood the racial discrimination that their families faced in the labor market. They knew that the only avenue for social mobility was an academic diploma, and thus, if they attended high school, they fought to obtain an academic degree to avoid manual work and assume a professional position as a Black doctor, lawyer, or teacher.

Beginning in the Great Depression, the demographics of Germantown High School slowly began to change. First, the school enrolled more working-class white youth. Then, in the postwar period, it enrolled more working-class Black youth. As the demographics changed, school officials questioned the value of an academic degree for poor Black and white youth and expanded vocational programs that they believed matched the intellectual dispositions and future aims of youth, who in ordinary economic times, had never attended high school. The curricular reforms that school officials implemented, first in the poor Black schools such as Philadelphia's Simon Gratz High School and then later in Germantown High School, mapped neatly onto class and race.

Through an analysis that weaves together the social organization of education and the construction of metropolitan urban space, the political economy of urban education, and the failures of educational policy, this book demonstrates how the convergence of class, race, and space generated a system of unequal access to educational resources and reinforced a system of racial and economic segregation. The story of Germantown High School forces us, as scholars, educators, and activists, to reckon with the fact that urban schools have remained largely impervious to education reforms, including those that focused on vocational education, school desegregation, and school choice. None of these reforms addressed the structural and unequal distribution of race, space, and resources—both public and private—that have left low income and youth of color in underfunded and under-resourced public schools since the turn of the 20th century.

This project leverages an interdisciplinary approach to scholarship that uses an array of quantitative and qualitative methodologies from education, history, and sociology and a diverse archival and contemporary source base. I examined graduate demographic data gathered from school yearbooks and the census to understand how the class, race, gender, and ethnicity of the Germantown student body changed over time. Using quantitative methods and data for thousands of Philadelphia youth, I have analyzed these demographics to understand how race and class influenced students' educational opportunities and labor market outcomes. Using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) software, I mapped this quantitative data to show the spatial distribution of the community's youth by race and ethnicity. Qualitative methods—examining city and community newspapers, association meeting notes, political scrapbooks, and Philadelphia Board of Education annual reports—let me connect the political, economic, and social forces that shaped the history of the school and its community to larger historical changes (see appendix for statistical details). I also used school newspapers, yearbooks, and newsletters to document historical changes inside the school and to understand the perspectives that youth brought to these changes. I used ethnographic methods as well, filming oral history interviews with Germantown High School alumni, teachers, and community activists and conducting participant observations at school events and rallies. These interviews and observations allowed me to analyze how the district and school decisions affected the lives of adolescent youth and how the intersections of class, gender, and race shaped their experiences inside the school.

The Roots of Educational Inequality shows how class, race, and space have intersected with the political economy of urban education to create unequally resourced schools within one urban school district. It argues that our high schools are not actually broken, but that they are operating as they were designed to. These institutions were founded to provide different opportunities and resources to Black and white children. These differences can be traced to the fiscal policies that existed at the turn of the 20th century. We can only see that by examining the history of one institution from its founding to its closure. This is the first book to do that. The story that follows—which focuses on one city, one school district, and one high school—sheds light on the broader transformation of urban communities and schools across America, on the ways that our nation has failed to provide Black schools with equal and adequate resources, and on the possible solutions to address their shortcomings in the hopes of creating more equitable and just outcomes for all youth.

Penn Press | Site Use and Privacy Policy
Report Accessibility Issues and Get Help | University of Pennsylvania
Copyright © 2021 University of Pennsylvania Press | All rights reserved