For seven years, school districts and parents have been suing the state of Pennsylvania, arguing that it is failing to provide adequate, equitable funding for public schools. Recently, a judge considered pretrial motions in preparation for the trial’s start date on Sept. 9.
While Pennsylvanians will undoubtedly hear much about the case, let’s be clear that the plaintiffs — represented by the Education Law Center (ELC) — base their allegations largely on myths, and their claims are dubious at best.
The primary legal argument is that the state has failed in its constitutional duties by not sending what ELC deems the proper amount to low-income districts, relative to other districts.
But the Pennsylvania Constitution doesn’t direct the state to favor certain districts over others by any measure, nor does it specify how much the state must spend. It simply requires that: “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Considering state-level funding of education has been on the rise for decades — up 68% just since 1990, adjusted for inflation, according to our analysis of state data — legislators have hardly failed their legal, constitutional duty.
Though this lawsuit is a classic case of tilting at windmills, it does open a valuable political conversation about education funding. Is education funding too low? And if children face unequal opportunities, what’s the best way to fix the problem?
In answering those questions, the ELC relies on the misleading statistic that Pennsylvania ranks low nationally for its “state share” of education funding, meaning the percentage of the total school funding that comes directly from the state. But “state share” has little to do with how much school districts receive.
Pennsylvania ranks within the top 10 in the nation in education funding, according to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics. Total spending per student is thousands of dollars above the national average, thanks to ample state funding and local funding that is far above what most local taxpayers in the rest of the country provide. It’s only because of this outsized local tax haul that an objectively high state funding level can be made to look small — basic fractions.
In addition, ELC’s claims manufacture ties between state funding and racial discrimination. It says that the state’s poorest school districts spend, on average, $4,800 less per student than the wealthy school districts. Recently, Penn Live reported that the center’s legal director, Maura McInerney, said this funding disparity disproportionately hurts Black and Latino students, who are more likely to be in poorer districts.
Again, the facts tell a different story. Our analysis of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education shows that in districts with the highest poverty level, the total funding per student is $19,003. Here, the state pays $10,854. In districts with the lowest poverty level (5%), total funding is $20,518 per student, of which the state pays $5,033. The numbers show that despite lower property tax revenues in poorer districts, the funding disparity is not even close to ELC’s claim. Moreover, Pennsylvania spends more than double per student in the poorest districts than the wealthiest districts.
I agree with McInerney: A segregated school system causes a lack of opportunity for many students. But the solution is not to fill the segregated system with billions more dollars, which will go to the ruling class that controls it, not families. Equity requires ownership, and ownership requires control over the money.
The real solution is to fix the core problem — the separation of children from each other and opportunities by district lines.
Why not enable all children to break free from the district boundaries currently causing so much harm? Instead of the state sending money to schools, it should give it directly to students and their families, so they can choose which school to spend it on. Research from Ed Choice, a nonprofit that encourages school choice, has found that sending education funding directly to students may lower segregation and increase academic achievement.
If Pennsylvania’s education system prioritized families over bureaucracy, we’d never have to worry about “wealthy” and “poor” districts — or baseless lawsuits — again.
Jennifer Stefano is the vice president and chief strategist at the Commonwealth Foundation. She is a visiting fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.