I’m feeling lucky.
A couple posts ago I wrote about how Black civil rights organizers Ann Atwater and Bill Riddick turned KKK leader C. P. Ellis from Exalted Cyclops to left labor organizer through education justice.
This felt like a one-of-a-kind story. Certainly, I thought, I’d never come across another inspiring case of race/class unity in the history of school funding—or at least it’d be a long time until I saw another one.
But then Tuesday night a student in my history of school funding seminar, Whitney, gave a fantastic presentation about her school district. Tredryffin/Easttown (TE), about half an hour west of Philadelphia, has a really interesting story.
It’s remarkable in a number of ways.
First, the school district was never formally segregated. It was integrated. When a racist superintendent tried to segregate it in the 1930s people in TE organized, pulled their children out of school, and didn’t relent until the policy was revoked.
Whitney showed us a film TE students made doing oral history work with elders who’d been children during this fight in the 1930s. It’s a great video.
That solidarity had built up over time. Throughout the 19th century and through the 20th, the district—so far as I can tell— never systematically separated Black children and white children.
The photo above featuring Black and white children is from one of the public schools in 1909. There’s also evidence of Black and white students together from this photo of the T/E High school in 1927.
Collaboration on the high school
The high school features an even more interesting part of this story. Tredyffrin/Easttown High School, an integrated school, was the result of the first “jointure” of high schools in Pennsylvania.
High schools were required by the state in the late 1800s. Jointure meant letting families pay taxes across district lines so students could go to a high school in a neighboring district.
In 1907, there was an amendment to the 1895 jointure law that let districts issue bonds together and collectively assume the cost of constructing new high schools to fulfill the state’s mandate.
Tredyffrin and Easttown were the first to take advantage of the amendment, issuing a bond for $40,000 that same year in 1907. The money was “divided as follows: Easttown $17,660, Tredyffrin $22,340.” (More background here.)
I find this really interesting because it was through bond issuance that the districts sealed their collaboration. I’d read about using bond issuance to consolidate school districts in Esther Cyna’s work on Durham, NC as well: the county and city districts there wanted to merge, and advocates made this proposal by issuing a bond across district lines.
The Durham issuance failed at least five times, starting in 1955 and not passing until 1991. Whitney smartly contrasted this history to TE, which passed a bond issuance to merge districts for the high school almost ninety years earlier in 1907.
What’s significant is that each situation featured a Black/white divide. But in the TE case, people apparently couldn’t wait to share finances to build a school for all their kids, whereas Durhamites (on both sides of the racial divide) were against it.
A bond that’s also a bond
It makes me think about the word ‘bond’. The financial meaning of the word is very different than the social meaning. A financial bond is a loan between borrower and lender at a rate of interest whereas a social bond is a sympathetic, solidaristic connection between people.
It’s rare that the two meanings converge since, in capitalism, a financial bond violates many of the good things in social bonds.
But in the TE case they converge. The financial bond happened, I imagine, because of the social bonds between the people of the two districts across differences. I’d also guess that this bond issuance strengthened the bonds between them.
In a socialist USA, I’d want bonds between people rather than bonds. But maybe this story is telling us that bonds can happen through bonds.
I have a lot of questions about this bond issuance: who was involved? was there really race/class solidarity? was there dissent? what were the demographics? how did those social bonds form? I’ve been reading through Whitney’s sources in the town archives, but a better trained historian than I should investigate this from a racial capitalist perspective. (The best I could find after a quick search is an undergraduate honors thesis from Butler University on the relative privilege of TE compared to Philadelphia.)
Certainly the demographics of the district now don’t necessarily reflect that integration. According to 2017 civil rights data, the district is 68% white, 22% Asian, and 2.3% Black. TE also has a relatively high per pupil spending average, being a suburb.
Can we do this?
A final note: I’m wondering whether we can use this tactic today. One approach of better school funding distribution under capitalism is regional tax sharing.
I know that there’s no chance of this passing at the state level right now like it did in Minnesota. But if districts in Eastern Pennsylvania got together and agreed to issue bonds across district lines, distributing the principal and interest through a sharing scheme, we could create something like it from the ground up.
You’d have to organize the business directors from each district. Get everyone to agree to a plan, a regional authority, shared finances, distribution formulas. Then you’d have to pass bond issuance referenda in each district. A big project, but could be worth it.