Gov. Tom Wolf recently proposed a budget for 2019-20 that includes increased education funding across the board — for basic education, special education, early childhood education, and career and technical education as well as for school safety and to boost teacher salaries. All of these are areas of great need, worthy of increased state support.
The governor’s proposal of a 4 percent overall increase in state spending for public schools, or $479 million, is a positive step, building on the investments in education that he made in his first term. But the proposed funding isn’t enough and will not significantly change Pennsylvania’s ranking as the fifth-worst state in the country in terms of the meager share of education costs covered by state government.
There is another shortcoming in the governor’s budget that is just as critical to address: equity. The proposal does not consistently focus investments on the students and school districts where the need is greatest. Pennsylvania is a state where the gaps between education haves and have-nots are enormous and growing: A recent analysis by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center found that the spending gap between a typical high-wealth and low-wealth district in the commonwealth widened from $3,058 per student in 2013 to $3,778 in 2017.
In 2016, state legislators joined with Wolf to adopt a mechanism designed to help address the problems that led to Pennsylvania’s being labeled the most inequitably funded state in the nation. That mechanism is a fair funding formula for state basic education dollars that drives more funding to districts and student populations that need more support. However, this formula only applies to new money, leaving the vast majority of basic education funding distributed without consideration of district and student need. And of all the new funding for public schools in Gov. Wolf’s proposal, only about one-third — $166 million — is driven out to districts using this need-based basic education formula.
Even if the governor’s proposal is adopted in full, only 11 percent of the state’s total appropriation to basic education funding — $705 million out of $6.5 billion — will be distributed through the state’s fair funding formula. Although the amount of money being distributed through the formula has steadily grown since its adoption, so has the amount of funding allocated outside of it. Meanwhile, research has shown a disturbing and consistent statewide pattern that Pennsylvania districts with larger numbers of African American students receive fewer state education dollars.
Providing access to a quality public education for Pennsylvania’s most underserved students requires bolder efforts to distribute state aid equitably — that is, to the students and districts with the greatest unmet needs. That would mean driving additional dollars through the formula, or even designating additional funding specifically for the districts identified via the formula as most underfunded.
The lack of targeted state support leads to glaring and continuing disparities between high-wealth and low-wealth districts here in the Philadelphia area. Our region is home to 13 affluent suburban school districts that spend $20,000 or more per student — amounts far above the statewide average of $15,000. Just miles away, three districts — Philadelphia, Upper Darby, and Oxford Area School District — are spending less than $14,000 per student, and not for lack of effort. These three districts can only muster about half of the $26,422 per student that Lower Merion School District spends, despite levying significantly higher tax rates.
Disparities like these are what propelled school districts and families across Pennsylvania along with two statewide organizations to file a lawsuit against the state in 2014 to compel state officials to adequately and equitably fund schools. The Education Law Center serves as one of the organizations representing plaintiffs in the case, which is slated for trial next year.
The state legislature continues to violate its constitutional duty to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” As budget season unfolds, we urge our lawmakers to consider options to adequately and equitably fund our schools and ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center, a statewide nonprofit legal advocacy organization.