Despite a claim to the contrary, the Commonwealth Court’s decision precisely said Pennsylvania needs to provide additional resources to low-wealth school districts

Diana Polson |

The Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC), a bipartisan group made up of 12 legislators and three members of Governor Shapiro’s administration, is charged with reviewing the state’s distribution of funding for basic education to Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts and producing a report for the General Assembly. In light of the Commonwealth Court decision earlier in the year which found Pennsylvania’s current public education funding system to be unconstitutional, the BEFC will ideally be using its process to help move Pennsylvania towards its Constitutional obligation of a thorough and efficient system of public education. The BEFC, established by the General Assembly, is holding hearings across the Commonwealth to hear from educators, parents, community members, and education policy experts. This commission is the logical table to outline a path forward for the General Assembly to comply with the court order.

On September 21, 2023, the BEFC heard from testifiers in Lancaster, PA. Laura Boyce, Executive Director of Pennsylvania Teach Plus, an organization of teacher leaders who champion policies and practices that promote equity, opportunity, and student success, testified that it has been well established that money matters in education—that increasing funding improves student outcomes. State Senator Rothman (R) who represents Cumberland, Perry, and Dauphin counties, challenged Boyce’s statement, saying that money matters in “the way we spend it, not how much.” When Boyce responded “it is both,” Senator Rothman said, “I disagree that the court case says we need to spend more money.”

In fact, the court decision precisely says school funding in Pennsylvania is both inadequate and that low-wealth school districts need additional funding to create a constitutional school funding system.

The amount of money matters.

The court decision clearly states that “money does matter.” The judge does not say money matters in the way it is spent. She clearly states how much money is what matters, making a comparison to the resources low-wealth districts have compared to what wealthier districts are able to spend.

“From these statistics, the Court concludes that money does matter, and economically-disadvantaged students and historically underperforming students can overcome challenges if they have access to the right resources that wealthier districts are financially able to provide” (William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et. al. (2023), p. 717-18). (Italics are included for the author’s emphasis.)

Low-wealth districts have higher needs, lack resources, and cannot tax their way to sufficient funding.

The decision establishes that it is the state’s responsibility to address the funding shortfalls because low-wealth districts struggle to raise enough money through local taxes and therefore lack the inputs to provide such an education—the most important input being adequate funding as acknowledged in the decision (“The most obvious input is funding…” (Ibid, p. 676).

“The evidence demonstrates that low-wealth districts like Petitioner Districts, which struggle to raise enough revenue through local taxes to cover the greater needs of their students, lack the inputs that are essential elements of a thorough and efficient system of public education – adequate funding; courses, curricula, and other programs that prepare students to be college and career ready; sufficient, qualified, and effective staff; safe and adequate facilities; and modern, quality instrumentalities of learning” (Ibid, p. 705).

The Court made clear that we have “a funding formula that does not adequately take into account student needs, which are generally higher in low-wealth districts” (Ibid, p. 769). Shenandoah Valley, for example, has the 11th highest-need student population in the state and yet it is one of the poorest districts. The court made clear that low-wealth districts like Shenandoah Valley “can not tax it’s way to sufficient funding” (Ibid, p. 246-247). With only approximately one-third of school funding coming from the state (which is low compared to the national average), public schools are heavily reliant on local sources of funding. Low-wealth districts tend to have higher tax rates, yet are unable to raise sufficient revenue. “As a result of this heavy reliance on local funding, low-wealth districts are negatively impacted” (Ibid, p. 677).

The state and legislature have long acknowledged our state’s inadequate funding but have not yet resolved the problem.

The court decision also underscores that the state and legislature have repeatedly recognized that Pennsylvania’s current funding is inadequate: through a Costing Out Study explicitly designed to determine, based on research, the funding levels each district required to enable students to meet state standards; through a Fair Funding Formula also founded on research estimating how much more costly it is to education student population’s in lower wealth districts; and through that the enactment of a  Level Up program that, in the 2021-22 and 2022-23 state budgets, gave the districts with the fewest resources to meet their students’ needs based on factors in the  Fair Funding and special education formulas greater funding. In the Commonwealth Court decision, Judge Jubelirer wrote:

“The Costing Out Study, and the subsequent calculation of adequacy shortfalls, even if for only three years, does demonstrate a legislative recognition that there was a funding inadequacy… The Court finds the Costing Out Study, the subsequent calculation of adequacy targets and shortfalls, the BEF Commission, the Fair Funding Formula, and the Level Up Formula, all credibly establish the existence of inadequate education funding in low-wealth districts like Petitioners, a situation known to the Legislature.” William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et. al. (2023), p. 678.

While the above proves the legislature’s acknowledgment that low-wealth districts are underfunded, the Court also shows that the fair funding formula, established in 2015, did not resolve this problem. On page 383, Judge Jubelirer quotes Mr. Splain (a representative of PARSS, which was one of two organizational plaintiffs) who testified that while the fair funding formula “provided the blueprint for distributing [funding] more equitably, . . . it never dealt with what was adequate for our students to meet the needs they have” (author’s emphasis). So, even on the mechanics of the formula, the Court found the crux of the problem is the lack of ensuring adequate funding for low-wealth school districts.

The court mandate is clear: the state must adequately fund education for every student.

The court mandate given to the state is clear: that the Commonwealth must provide all students with an adequately funded education.

“[A]ny plan devised by Respondents at the Court’s direction will have to provide all students in every district throughout Pennsylvania, not just Petitioners, with an adequately funded education, i.e., a ‘thorough and efficient’ one” (Ibid, p. 608).

Misspent district funds are not the problem.

Having established that Pennsylvania’s current funding system is inadequate, that the amount of money does matter, and that the charge of the state is to make sure all school districts are adequately funded, Senator Rothman is clearly mistaken when he claims that money only matters “in the way we spend it, not how much.” There is nowhere in the opinion that suggests that school districts are mis-spending funds. In fact, the court rejected the same argument that Senator Rothman made—that district misspending is the problem. The court decision concluded that inadequate state funding deprived districts of essential resources and the problem cannot be fixed without additional funding. Reworking how we spend existing funds will not solve the problem.

David Lapp, of Research for Action, who also testified on the 21st, showed that inadequately funded school districts would need to collectively hire 11,000 additional teachers, 1,000 administrators, and 1,600 professional support staff just to match the staffing rates and salaries of adequately funded districts. This would cost an additional $2.6 billion in salaries alone. School districts could not “adjust” the way they spend existing money to address this basic, and glaring, inequity.

And finally…

Anyone who has read the opinion can clearly see that the charge of the state is to fix inadequate funding (read: not enough) within our system. That means more investment is needed. We look forward to the commission complying with, not dodging, the court order, and deciding how our state can do best by our K-12 school kids. All of them.