November 18, 2021–The school districts, parents, and statewide organizations that are suing state officials are asking the court to:
Declare that our current system of funding our schools does not comply with the state constitution, and
Order the state legislature, the governor, and the Department of Education to create and maintain a new “thorough and efficient” school funding system that allows all students to receive the quality education they deserve, and that does not discriminate against low-wealth school districts.
What does this mean?
The state legislature must provide the recurring state funding necessary so that every student receives a quality public education, whether or not they live in a wealthy community that is able to raise the needed funds with local taxes.
We are asking for sustained, substantial new investments in state funding for public education, distributed based on need, so that local wealth no longer determines whether Pennsylvania students receive a quality public education.
What kind of funding system would comply with the Pennsylvania Constitution?
The specific details of this new system will be up to the state legislature to determine, under the oversight of the court order. We are not seeking a specific dollar amount or method of funding schools—though it is clear that redistribution of current inadequate state funds will not solve this problem. Currently, the state legislature does not even calculate, let alone seek to provide to every community, the resources that students need to be college- and career-ready.
Penn State professor Matthew Kelly, an expert in the lawsuit, has calculated how much additional funding is needed for districts to reach an adequate funding benchmark that is written in state law. Professor Kelly found that Pennsylvania public schools are collectively short by at least $4.6 billion of what they would need to provide an adequate education to all students, before taking into account special education needs and facility upgrades.
What about the fair funding formula?
The state’s fair funding formula was the result of the legislature’s 2016 bipartisan agreement that some students cost more to educate, and that state education funding distribution should be based on the actual numbers and characteristics of the student bodies of school districts, as well as factors like school district size. These factors include numbers of students in poverty, concentrated poverty, and English Learners. The lawsuit is not challenging the student or district factors that comprise the formula.
However, the current formula does not determine how much funding the legislature should allocate to meet the needs of students in every community, but merely how the legislature should distribute whatever it decides to appropriate. The lawsuit is challenging the failure of the legislature to provide sufficient funds to ensure that local wealth does not determine whether districts can provide the quality education guaranteed in the state constitution.
Adoption of the school funding formula did not itself deliver any additional money for schools. Though the legislature’s adoption of the formula was certainly a step in the right direction towards equity, a formula is only as good as the dollars sent through it. The formula only applies to increases in state funding over the 2014-15 baseline, a small fraction of the education budget—only 14% of basic education funding. Distributing so little of the current state aid based on need is irrational and inequitable. But to be clear, distributing all of the current funds through the formula without ensuring that those funds are adequate will not solve Pennsylvania’s underfunding crisis.
This case is not demanding that 100 percent of current state funding be distributed according to the state’s basic education funding formula. Solely redistributing inadequate state funds from some districts to others will not fully address the problems underfunded districts face, would not change the system’s current overreliance on local wealth, and would mean that one district’s gain is another’s loss. We are not seeking any particular method of funding schools—the specific details of a new, constitutional system will be up to the legislature to determine, under the oversight of a court order.
If you’re having a party with 100 guests, one pizza is not going to be enough, no matter how fairly you slice it. The pie needs to be bigger.
Pennsylvania’s basic education funding formula, adopted in 2016, does not determine how big the pie should be – how much funding is needed in each district to ensure that they can provide an adequate quality education.
Underfunding of public schools in Pennsylvania is not caused by school districts that receive more than they would receive according to the basic education funding formula. It is caused by the state legislature’s and other state officials’ inaction in the face of unconscionable resource deficiencies and unacceptable outcomes for children. By providing insufficient and irrationally distributed state funds to all districts, our leaders in Harrisburg have ensured that only districts with sufficient local wealth can raise the funds needed for the quality education guaranteed in our state constitution. That is why we’re in court.
Have other states seen changes similar to the changes sought in this case?
School funding lawsuits in other states that have spurred more state revenue for public schools, reduced inequality, and led to better academic and life outcomes for students. A 2015 study of 28 states found that, for children from low-income families, increased per-pupil spending that followed school funding litigation yielded large improvements in educational attainment, wages, and family income. They saw reductions in the annual incidence of poverty when those students reached adulthood. We need only cross the Delaware River into New Jersey to see an example of what state investment can achieve in public schools. After a court order led to significant school finance reform, New Jersey, serving a majority of students of color, ranks second in the nation in achievement and graduation rates.