Why Pa. needs a new statewide costing-out study for public education | Opinion

(U.S. Department of Education / Flickr)

By David Lapp

It’s budget season and public education comprises the largest single portion of Pennsylvania’s state budget. So what does it actually cost for schools to meet the educational needs of students?  How much should the state be contributing to those costs compared to local communities?

For a brief time in recent history, Pennsylvania policymakers asked those questions. The state even answered them based on objective evidence.  And, at least in part, state budget decisions were made accordingly.

The reason this happened was because in 2007, the Pennsylvania General Assembly commissioned a statewide “costing-out” study for education funding.  These kinds of studies have been conducted by dozens of states and help to remove politics from a state budget process.

Pennsylvania’s study became the foundation of a basic education funding formula that calculated “adequacy targets” for each district. These targets were used to drive out substantial new state revenues.

However, after only three years, the Corbet administration slashed nearly all the new funding and abolished the old formula. The 2010-2011 school year was the last time that the Pennsylvania Department of Education calculated adequacy targets.

It took the state six years to finally develop a new basic education funding formula.

Much has been written about one major problem with the new formula—that lawmakers only use it to drive out new revenues appropriated since 2016, leaving the non-formula portion of state funding (about 90% of the total line item) grandfathered in perpetuity.

Another problem with the new formula is that it only determines how to distribute whatever new funding the legislature decides to appropriate. Unlike the old formula, it doesn’t tell law makers how much funding districts need.  It doesn’t calculate adequacy targets.

This lack of evidence-based decision-making has contributed to Pennsylvania having one of the most inequitable state education funding systems in the nation.  It is also one of the main reasons why lawmakers have failed to comply with their state constitutional mandate to support a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

This past year, Research for Action commissioned Picus Odden & Associates, national experts in school finance, to conduct independent costing-out studies at the local school district level. Without the resources and access to data of all 500 school districts needed to conduct a statewide study, this project is limited to the three individual school districts that volunteered to participate so far:  Butler Area School District in Western Pennsylvania; Chambersburg Areas School District in Central Pennsylvania; and Upper Darby School District in Southeastern Pennsylvania.

Each district provided data that was used to determine where additional staffing is needed, where cuts can be found, and whether each district’s school has adequate budgets for technology, professional development, instructional materials, and gifted/talented programming.

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What Picus Odden found is strong evidence of inadequate state funding in each of these districts: a 16 percent adequacy gap in Butler Area, 17 percent gap in Chambersburg Area, and a 22 percent gap in Upper Darby.

The researchers concluded that “If such funds were provided and used as [the model] indicates, the state could reasonably expect significant overall improvements in student achievement and reductions in the achievement gaps linked to student demographics.”

When the findings were complete, each district held community meetings where dozens of parents, students, teachers, administrators, board members, and other community members learned about the study and reviewed the findings. At these meetings, attendees overwhelmingly agreed with Picus Odden’s findings that funding levels were inadequate.

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Notably, the Picus Odden estimates are based only on budget items related to particular instructional expenses. Gaps would likely be even larger if entire district budgets were examined.

In addition, Picus Odden describes their model as akin to an “Education Hybrid-Car” because it is “designed for high performance with the most efficiency.”

In other words, we are not talking about the Cadillac of school funding.

This kind of research is useful to districts seeking to develop a community-wide shared understanding of how their funding levels stack up to what’s needed to provide a high-quality education to their children.  Additional districts interested in participating should contact Research for Action for more information.

As useful as the Picus Odden calculations have been, they still do not provide the level of statewide funding needed across the Commonwealth. For that we need the General Assembly to commission a new a statewide costing-out study, designed to calculate adequacy targets for all 500 school districts and used to drive new decisions about both where and how much state funding should be appropriated.  It’s time for lawmakers to return to evidence-based education budget decision-making.

David Lapp is the director of Policy Research at Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit education research organization.

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