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By Marc Stier and Eugene Henninger-Voss
In September, a group of students and school districts will make a case in state court that the commonwealth is not meeting its constitutional responsibility to give every student an adequate and equitable education.
The conservative Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg think-tank, has called the funding lawsuit misguided. But its analysis doesn’t address the critical question of the gap between what schools spend and what they should spend according to adequacy standards written into state law. Instead, it changes the subject and presents data about other questions, tangentially related to the fundamental question at hand.
The lawsuit is not about how much money is spent per-student in Pennsylvania on average because a high level of spending could, and does, hide vast disparities between school districts. Those disparities arise because the bulk of school funding comes from local sources.
Wealthy districts raise far more funding from property and earned income taxes than poor districts, even when poor districts have much higher tax rates.
The lawsuit is not about whether the state spends more now than it did in the past. New state funding doesn’t necessarily go to the school districts that need it the most. In recent years, most new funds provided by the state went to pay for pensions, charters schools, and other mandated costs, not for more teachers, counselors, or technology.
The lawsuit is not about whether the state share of school spending is high or low. That the state share of school funding, at 38%, is fourth from the bottom of all states does make it harder to overcome inequities generated by unequal local resources. But a higher state share would not be sufficient if state funds were still not to flow to the school districts that need them the most.
And the lawsuit is not about whether school districts spend an equal amount per student.
Three times in the last ten years, a substantial bipartisan majority in the Pennsylvania Legislature has affirmed the principle—to which all experts in education agree—that some students, such as those who grow up in low-income communities, have greater needs than others and thus that their schools need to spend more money to give them an equal education.
They did so in calling for the bipartisan costing-out study of 2007, in the adoption of the Basic Education Funding Formula in 2016, and in the adoption of the Level Up supplement in the 2021-2022 state budget.
Our analysis of spending in the state’s 500 school districts focuses directly on the issue at hand. It uses the 2007 costing-out study as the benchmark to identify the level of funding in each district necessary to provide an adequate education. The costing-out study, carried out at the request of the state Board of Education as required by Act 114, aimed to “arrive at a determination of the basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the state’s academic standards.”
Penn State education professor Matthew Kelley updated the study for 2020 and we used that data as a benchmark to identify funding gaps: the difference between what each school district should spend per student to provide an adequate education and what it actually does spend.
In presenting this data, we divide school districts into four groups, which each contain school districts that include one-quarter of the K-12 students in the Commonwealth. The four groups arrange the school districts from low to high in terms of the share of households in each district living in poverty or the share of households that are Black or the share of households that are Hispanic.
Only 16% of school districts have enough funding to provide an adequate education. Thus, there is a funding gap for every quartile of school districts. But, as the accompanying figures shows, the gap is far greater when school districts are poorer or have more Black or Hispanic students.
School districts with the highest share of households living in poverty have a funding gap of $3,167 per student. School districts with the lowest share of households living in poverty have a funding gap of $305 per student.
School districts with the highest share of Black students have a funding gap of $2,646 per student; those with the lowest share have a funding gap of $831. School districts with the highest share of Hispanics have a funding gap of $3,132 per student; those with the lowest share have a gap of $935.
These gaps are deeply problematic from both a moral and constitutional point of view. And they clearly show that the answer to the question, “Does Pennsylvania provide an adequate and equitable education for all students?” is sadly “no.”
Marc Stier is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center. Eugene Henninger-Voss is a policy analyst at the Pennsylvania Budget & Policy Center.
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