By Michael Churchill
Last month, the Allegheny Institute analyzed the 43 Allegheny county school districts in a policy brief, arguing that “the very worst-performing school districts are not being shortchanged for resources … all but one of the seven very best performing and top-ranked districts spent less than the state average and far less than the average for the weakest performing … [nine] districts.” John Haulk, Institute President and the brief’s author, concludes by impugning the truthfulness of those who advocate for more school funding. “It is time for some honesty from those who continually claim in most vociferous terms that school funding is unfair and that more money is needed,” he wrote.
This kind of analysis and rhetoric might be a good way to get attention, but when one looks closely, it becomes clear that the Allegheny Institute is presenting the issue of school funding in a very misleading way. The Institute came to the conclusion that high-performing districts in Allegheny County spend less than their peers by ignoring the differing needs of districts. The findings of the state’s bi-partisan Basic Education Commission provide some valuable context. After the commission reviewed both extensive testimony from Pennsylvania educators and national research, they confirmed a common sense reality: not all students cost the same to educate. English Language Learners need more help and support than the average student. Students who grow up in poverty come to school less prepared than students who do not, and face additional challenges as well. Unsurprisingly, not all districts have the same percentage of higher costing students.
That is why the Commission recommended and the General Assembly adopted a formula which measures the need of districts by giving additional weight to high costing students. The formula distributes funding based on the weighted number of students, showing the district’s needs, rather than treating all students as costing the same. The Allegheny Institute conveniently ignored the basic fact that different students have different educational needs, counting every student the same when it calculates per-pupil spending.
The Allegheny Institute conveniently ignored the basic fact that different students have different educational needs, counting every student the same when it calculates per-pupil spending.
When the amount of money spent by districts in 2016-17 for current spending (the very same figure used by the Institute) is divided by the state’s calculation of the number of weighted students each district had that year, the outcomes are very different.
The average district in the state spends $12,812 per weighted student, and every one of the seven high performing districts identified by the Institute is spending well above that figure. Their average spending per weighted student was $15,602, or almost three thousand dollars above the average. As for the nine lowest performing districts identified by the Institute, only two were spending below the state average, but their average of $13,523 was more than $2,000 per weighted student less than the average for high performing districts. Indeed, all low performing districts cited by the Institute were spending below the average amount per weighted student for the high performing districts, except for Pittsburgh and Wilkinsburg. South Fayette was the only high performer spending less than the average for the low performers.
Another issue with the Institute’s methodology is its decision to compare Allegheny school district spending with the state average. This is not entirely appropriate because Allegheny districts face higher costs than many more rural counties. But comparisons between Allegheny County’s districts using the county average spending as a baseline reveal the same funding disparities. The county’s average current spending per weighted student is $14,512. Using that as a base, only two of the seven hjgh performing districts highlighted by the Institute spent less than average, and only three of the nine low performing districts spent more. All in all, there appears to be a real correlation between having low resources and poor academic performance.
South Fayette SD, a high performing district with low per weighted student spending, is the only real outlier highlighted by the Institute’s analysis. It would indeed be worth looking at how this district accomplishes so much, but one outlier does not refute the fact that the 42 other districts in Allegheny County have markedly different experiences. It should be noted that South Fayette is among five districts in the state with the lowest weights added on to the base attendance—less than four percent. This means that South Fayette has relatively few students that require additional support. It may be that South Fayette looks more cost effective because it is relatively cheaper to educate the average student there and the weights for the more expensive students are not big enough to really reflect their additional cost.
While it is obvious that having financial resources is not the only ingredient to success, it is time for the Allegheny Institute to admit that students in poor communities need and deserve things that wealthier communities take for granted: enough kindergarten teachers for full day classes, realistic class sizes for students who need help, and supports for students and teachers so learning can take place. Up to date books and technology are also important, and all of these things require sufficient funding. For better or worse, some students will cost more to educate, but the cost is more than recovered by the benefits from an educated work force, from families who are productive and supporting themselves, from reduced costs for all sorts of social services, and from a stronger economy. The conservative Rand Corporation pointed this out in a 2015 study of Pennsylvania’s funding gaps.
In any event, it should be clear that the heated rhetoric of the Allegheny Institute denouncing advocates calling for additional school funding is no more than ideology dressed up as data. It is simply deceitful to claim that a lack of funding has nothing to do with poor quality education in some districts in Allegheny County by pretending that it is proper to compare districts as if they had the same per-student need for resources. Institute President Haulk writes that “It is time for some honesty” in the debate about the need for funding. A good way to start would be to drop the manipulative policy briefs, based on misleading interpretations of data. Good policy is based on common sense, and not the distorted numbers in last month’s policy brief.