In Pennsylvania Schools, The Kids Who Need the Most Get the Least

Marc Stier |

On Friday, a trial will begin in Commonwealth Court to determine whether Pennsylvania is meeting its constitutional responsibility to give every student an adequate and equitable education.  

By the standards the state of Pennsylvania sets for itself, it does not. Only 16% of school districts provide an adequate level of funding. And our analysis of the distribution of school funding relative to the share of students who are living in poverty or who are Black or Hispanic reveals inequities that are striking, immoral, and unconstitutional. 

The benchmark we use to identify the level of funding in each district necessary to provide an adequate education is the 2007 costing-out study, as updated in 2020 by Penn State education professor Matthew Kelley. As required by Act 114, the costing-out study aimed to “arrive at a determination of the basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the state’s academic standards.” 

Three times in the last ten years, a substantial bipartisan majority in the Pennsylvania Legislature has affirmed the principle that some students, such as those who grow up in low-income communities, have greater needs than others requiring their schools to spend more to give them an equal education: when it called for the costing-out study, adopted the Fair Funding Formula in 2016, and when it adopted the Level Up supplement for underfunded schools in the 2021-2022 state budget. Yet school funding not only fails to meet this requirement but does not provide equal funding to all students.  

Our analysis divides school districts into four quartiles, each with school districts that teach a quarter of the K-12 students in Pennsylvania. For the quartile with the lowest share of school-age children living in poverty, the gap between an adequate level of funding per student and current spending is $258 per student. The gap in the quartile of school districts with the highest share of school-age children living in poverty is more than ten times as much: $2,802 per student.  

When it comes to racial and ethnic disparities, the results are almost as bad. In the quartiles of school districts with the lowest shares of Black students, the gap between an adequate level of funding per student and current spending is $762 per student. But the gap in the quartile of school districts with the highest share of Black students is $2,347 per student. The gap per student for school districts with the lowest share of Hispanic students is $834 per student. For the quartile of school districts with the highest share of Hispanic students, the gap is $2,795 per student. 

Why is school funding so unequal in Pennsylvania? One answer is that Pennsylvania is 45th in the nation in the state share of school funding, which at 38% is far below the national average of 47%. (In 1975-1976, the state share was 55%.) Wealthy districts can raise far more funding from property and earned income taxes than poor districts, even though poor districts have much higher tax rates. 

Second, under Governor Wolf the state has increased funding to our schools by over $2 billion. But over the last 25 years, after accounting for the increase in the cost of education, state funding to K-12 schools has declined by 17% to 49% (depending on how one measures education inflation). And, in recent years, new state funding has gone to pay for pensions, charter schools, and other mandated costs, not for more teachers, counselors, or technology. 

And third, new state funding made little more than a dent in the historical inequity in Pennsylvania’s distribution of education funding. During the twenty years before 2015-2016, Pennsylvania funded its schools through a series of changing formulas and ad-hoc political deals that failed to direct funding to the school districts that most needed it. Since 2015-2016, new state money for our schools has flowed through the Fair Funding Formula—but close to 90% of the state’s funding of K-12 schools still follows the radically inequitable distribution in place in 2014-2015 and earlier years. 

On average, Pennsylvania does spend a great deal on educating our children. But that average is pulled up by a small number of very high-spending districts. For decades, the General Assembly has failed to meet its responsibility to our constitution and to the vast majority of our children, especially those who live in school districts that educate a higher share of students who are Black or Hispanic or who live in poverty. The lawsuit that goes to trial on Friday asks the court to demand our legislators rectify this inequity.