Pennsylvania shortchanged its poorest school districts in the distribution of federal relief funding, allocating the most recent round of pandemic aid without accounting for poverty or other needs, according to a new report.
Despite having a formula that directs state aid to districts with greater shares of students in poverty, among other factors, Pennsylvania didn’t do so for $175 million in CARES Act funding. Instead, it gave every district the same base amount of aid, then additional money based on enrollment — a process that resulted in the poorest districts receiving less funding than their more affluent counterparts, according to the Keystone Research Center.
The report, released Monday by the left-leaning Harrisburg-based think tank, said the poorest quartile of school districts — based on enrollment — received $36 million of the $175 million, less than each of the three other quartiles.
“Given the nation’s heightened awareness in the year 2020 of inequality, especially racial injustice, these are stunning findings,” the report said. Had Pennsylvania followed its formula for state education funding increases, the poorest quartile of districts would have received $90 million of the $175 million in aid, according to the analysis. Districts with the highest shares of Black and Latino students also would have received more.
If Pennsylvania receives more federal aid for schools, “we cannot make this mistake again,” Stephen Herzenberg, executive director of the research center, said during a news conference Monday.
Prior to the $175 million, Pennsylvania school districts received $400 million in CARES Act funding. Federal rules dictated that the money was awarded based on Title 1, a federal program targeting higher-poverty districts.
The method Pennsylvania used to award the later $175 million was passed by state lawmakers in June as part of a package of revisions to Pennsylvania’s school code. The changes were approved by Gov. Tom Wolf.
Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokesperson for Wolf, said the Democratic governor didn’t agree with the allocation but approved it “in the spirit of compromise” with the Republican-controlled legislature.
“If we had full control of the remaining CARES Act dollars, we would have allocated it similarly to the first round using Title I, or a similar approach that included an equity lens,” Kensinger said.
Neal Lesher, a spokesperson for House Appropriations Committee Chair Stan Saylor (R., York), said lawmakers set a baseline of $120,000 per district “to protect smaller school districts, ensuring that they received a sufficient amount to assist with COVID-19 health and safety mitigation.” The rest of the money was based on enrollment, “as the need for cleaning, [personal protective equipment], technology, and other expenses logically grows with the size of the district.”
Pennsylvania has recognized that poorer districts need more state aid than wealthier ones. The state enacted a formula in 2016 that distributes school funding based on enrollment, the needs of students, and district wealth.
But the formula only applied to new education spending approved by lawmakers — meaning it isn’t used to distribute the vast majority of state aid to districts. Advocates and lawmakers are still locked in a political battle over how the state pays for education, with a court case that alleges deep inequities in the funding system moving toward trial.
Stephen Rodriguez, superintendent of the Pottstown School District in Montgomery County, said the way Pennsylvania distributed federal aid was another example of the state’s unwillingness to adequately fund poorer districts.
“We’ve known this has been a problem, yet we’ve made very little headway into it,” Rodriguez said. He acknowledged that the earlier round of federal aid went primarily to higher-poverty districts, but he said those like his were struggling — noting that many urban districts still have families that lack internet access.
While Pottstown has used federal relief money to buy technology — “thousands and thousands of devices” — and Zoom licenses for teachers, the district hasn’t been able to respond as aggressively to the pandemic as some of its peers, Rodriguez said. It hasn’t been able to hire extra staff, as Rodriguez said some districts — anticipating shortages brought on by the virus — have done. It hasn’t been able to buy more PPE.
“I have 500 masks,” said Rodriguez, whose district enrolls 3,400. “We could do with extra of everything.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.