K-12 education in Pennsylvania is both inadequately and inequitably funded. The state share of education funding has been falling since the 1970s and Pennsylvania now ranks 46th in the nation in terms of state contribution to K-12. We also have a greater funding disparity than any other state, with poor districts receiving 33% less in funding per student than the state’s most affluent districts.
The state government shares responsibility for funding K-12 schools with 500 local school districts across the Commonwealth. Funds raised locally must supplement state funds, and these local funds are primarily raised via property taxes. Compared to other states, a relatively low share of total funding for K-12 education comes from the state; local governments have had to raise property taxes to make up the difference, leading to some communities in our state facing extremely high property taxes (although property taxes in PA are not high, on average, compared to other states).
Local communities’ overreliance on funding from property taxes results in big gaps in funding between school districts because local districts vary widely in income and wealth. In fact, Pennsylvania has a greater funding disparity than any other state, with poor districts paying 33% less than the state’s most affluent districts. The wealthiest school districts are spending $114,000 more per classroom than the lowest spending districts. Schools attended primarily by students of color are especially harmed by our inequitable funding.
After about a $1 billion cut in state spending on K-12 education in 2011-2012 under Governor Corbett, state spending has increased in subsequent years. The $1 billion cut was restored; but in the meantime, local schools have had to deal with inflation and higher pension costs.
In June 2015, Pennsylvania enacted a fair funding formula aimed at addressing the disparity that exists between rich and poor school districts. This legislation requires all new education funding to be distributed using this new funding formula. The formula ensures that new funding takes into account each school district’s distinct needs, including the number of students, the number of children living in poverty, the number of English language learners, the overall income and wealth, and the “tax effort” made by each district—that is, how much money it raises for schools locally, relative to its income and wealth. While this fair funding legislation and the new funds that flow through the formula have been critical to restoring the funding cut from K-12 education under Governor Corbett, they have not eliminated Pennsylvania’s school funding inequities. One reason is that the funding formula only applies to new money added to the Basic Education Funding (BEF) subsidy since 2014-15, and state funding before 2014-15 was distributed unfairly. The other is that not enough money has been added to the funding formula. To adequately and equitably educate our children, Pennsylvania must increase the basic education funding allocated through the fair formula by at least $3.7 billion over several years. For a more detailed look at solutions, see our We The People policy piece.
Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation in terms of the state contribution to local school funding. Low state funding for K-12 education leads to great inequities between rich and poor school districts and, in some areas, very high property taxes to be able to fund schools.
The state share of K-12 education funding has been decreasing since the 1970s.
After a deep cut in state support of classroom funding in 2011-2012, state spending has slowly increased, finally closing the gap last year. But the chart does not take into account inflation or higher pension costs for schools which means that schools are still worse off than they were prior to 2011-12. This year (2019), Governor Wolf proposes an increase of 2.9% or $182 million for basic education funding for classrooms. (We define “classroom funding” as funding that directly impacts children. It excludes such things as state aid for transportation.)
Students in Pennsylvania’s high-income areas attend some of the best funded schools in the country and the best performing schools in the world—they do very well by any measure. But those in the poorest third of districts in Pennsylvania are funded at the same level as students in the poorest school districts in West Virginia. The schools attended by the kids in the poorest third of communities in Massachusetts spend 46% more per student than Pennsylvania, and those in New Jersey spend 82% more. Students in Massachusetts and New Jersey do better on standardized tests than those in Pennsylvania.
There is a large gap between current spending per student and an adequate level of spending and the gap is greater in school districts with a higher rate of poverty. Here, we divide the 500 Pennsylvania school districts into four groups, from those with the highest share of children living in or near poverty to those with the lowest rate of children living in or near poverty. To reach an adequate level of funding, schools in the poorest quartile would need an average of an additional $2,156 per student per year, far more than what’s needed in the quartiles of schools with lower rates of children living in poverty. But even low-poverty school districts need more funding to reach adequacy. (The basis for determining an adequate level of spending is the median current level of spending per student in all school districts adjusted for demographic characteristics of students in each district.)
Governor Wolf’s 2019-2020 budget proposes adding $182 million for basic education funding through the fair funding formula. More money goes to schools with higher rates of poverty than lower rates of poverty. But there is not enough money to eliminate funding inequity between schools with high and low levels of poverty or to bring the average funding of schools in any quartile up to adequacy.
The share of funding since 2014-15 that goes through the fair funding formula in shown in red. While the money going through the formula has increased each year since 2014-15, only 9.7% of the Basic Education Funds are distributed according to the fair funding formula.