By Michael Churchill
This essay was published by the Pennsylvania Capital-Star on April 18, 2019.
Every year around state budget time, there is a fair amount of nonsense that attends the decision of how much money the state will give to our public schools. This obscures the central fact that a bold state funding investment is needed to make sure all Pennsylvania students can thrive. I hope this will essay provide a bit of clarity both for public officials and for the public at large.
The most recent example comes from a conservative “think tank,” the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy, which tried to claim that increased state funding would not yield academic gains among the students benefitting from the investment.
The Institute’s analysis is a class example of “garbage in, garbage out.” It reaches its conclusion by looking at state spending in school districts completely absent of context. It does not examine the relationship between total district spending and achievement, and ignores the fact that state educational aid is meant to make up for deficiencies in local tax bases. It uses bizarre subsets of the data to reach conclusions, which only serves to prove that its analysis cannot withstand the weight of the real-world evidence.
The unvarnished truth about state funding is that Pennsylvania’s state share of education costs is nearly the lowest in the nation, placing most of the burden on local district taxpayers. Not only does this result in high property taxes, but it especially harms children in poorer communities whose parents cannot tax themselves hard enough to compete with wealthier districts.
For decades, advocates for public education have been calling for Pennsylvania to use state funding to close the gap between rich and poor districts so that all children have the opportunity for an education that prepares them for their future.
Even so, another unvarnished truth is that Pennsylvania has the worst gap in total school funding between rich and poor of any state in the nation.
The accompanying table shows that spending and academic achievement are indeed strongly related. It looks at expenses for actual student instruction – not including transportation, debt service, and other such costs. In 2016-17, that median cost was $9,184 per weighted student, meaning that half of the school districts spent more, and half spent less.
This analysis reveals that when total spending increases by $1,000 per funding formula weighted student, academic achievement increases. Every time total spending decreases, the percentage of high-performing schools decreases.
It is true that money isn’t everything; but money isn’t nothing. Of course school districts need to spend money responsibly; but they can’t spend it responsibly if they don’t have it to begin with.
The state itself acknowledged as much four years ago when it revised the formula for distributing state money. The formula drives more money to poor districts, and it recognizes that it costs more to teach some children than others. Poverty costs more in lots of ways. Learning English as a second language costs more. These are complications that cannot be responsibly ignored.
Taking all this into account, it becomes clear that our schools, on the whole, are under-funded by billions of dollars. We found in 2015 that it would cost more than $4 billion to provide every school with the level of per-student funding that high achieving districts receive, taking into account the funding formula’s considerations for poverty and other factors. Every comprehensive study of school funding over the past 20-30 years has reached a similar conclusion.
Even knowing this, we as a state continue to allow heart-breaking conditions to exist in our poor and, increasingly, middle-class schools.
A flaw in the system that AIPP properly points out is the annual decision to hold school districts harmless in the distribution of state funds. That is, every school district every year cannot get less state funding than it received the year before, no matter what. This leads to districts with declining populations getting larger per-student state school funding.
However, we shouldn’t make too much of this. If hold harmless was eliminated, and existing state school funding was distributed according to the funding formula, it still wouldn’t close the opportunity gap for poor and middle-class students. More funding is needed and, as our analysis shows, more money does produce higher achievement.
Let’s hope that this is the year when Pennsylvania makes real progress toward closing the worst opportunity gap in the nation – and one of the lowest funding rates in the nation. Today’s children can’t wait, and shouldn’t have to wait, for full education funding to become a reality.