Pennsylvania’s School Funding Problem is Real

This post is in response to a Capitolwire column entitled “Challenging the argument that PA doesn’t provide for a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education.”

Cherry picking numbers to suit your argument has a long pedigree, but it is disappointing to see it such a prominent part of a recent Capitolwire column declaring that Pennsylvania schools have more than enough money to adequately educate their students.

Oh look, it says, federal statistics show Pennsylvania’s average expenditure per student was $15,139, but the national average was $11,984, and we are higher than all but 10 states. Any argument the state needs to spend more “is bunk.”

But that is as sensible as saying that when Bill Gates walks into a bar, the average person in the bar is a multi-millionaire and doesn’t need another dime.

What the author fails to note is that federal statistics also show that Pennsylvania has a higher difference between well-funded schools and poorly funded schools than any other state in the country. The few districts with high local levels of wealth are well funded and spend lots of money, just like Mr. Gates. But because Pennsylvania appropriates so little in state funds, the vast majority of districts without a mall in their tax base or wealthy taxpayers do not have the resources to have small class sizes, up to date text books, up to date technology or even adequate buildings, much less sufficient tutors, nurses, counselors, music and art. Shouldn’t these be parts of every school?

As shown by our own state assessments, the consequences of low state funding are evident. In the median school district, for example, only 45 percent of students score at proficient or above in math. The numbers are a little better but still low for English language arts (65 percent). Large numbers of students in over half the districts are not meeting the standards the state itself says is necessary to be prepared to be successful.

Just getting all districts to have the resources of the median district will require over $3 billion in accordance with the state’s own formula, which was unanimously recommended by a bi-partisan commission. And as should be apparent from our PSSA scores, the median spending district is not a very high definition of success.

You can call it bunk, but students, teachers, parents and administrators around the state are living with the reality that since 2008, all of the increase in state appropriations have gone to pension costs the legislature imposed on districts and to healthcare costs school districts do not control. Money to pay for non-pension inflation costs, as well as any money to increase below average expenditures for teachers, books, technology and other support staff, must come from local taxpayers under the present funding system, even though many of the poorer districts already pay higher school taxes.

Given the column’s focus on national comparisons, it is a shame there was no mention of the research that shows positive results in other states from court cases like the one in Commonwealth Court: increased investments to school districts that need it and resulting improvement in academic outcomes, better graduation rates and higher career incomes. Nor was there mention of the study by the Rand Corporation, which said that Pennsylvania’s achievement gaps are larger than most states and costs the state more than $12 billion annually in economic activity. But maybe the author of the column wants to call those studies “bunk” too. It’s so much easier to pick the numbers you like, without looking at the whole picture.