The Senate Appropriations Committee met on March 30 to discuss the proposed 2015-16 education budget with Acting Education Secretary Pedro Rivera. Three topics were discussed at the committee hearing that will be key to understanding the upcoming budget process. The topics will be covered, starting today, in three separate blog posts:
- how well public schools are doing and whether all children are given a fair chance to succeed;
- the role of unfunded pension costs in budget concerns; and
- property tax reform.
Today, we look at the first topic: public school performance and equality of opportunity.
Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R-Lancaster and York) started the hearing by pointing to how well the state performed on national academic measures to underscore how good our public schools already are. But that assumes that those averages are a good picture of the entire state, instead of just parts of it. When looking at state averages we see that:
- The state is among the top 10 nationally for 8th-grade reading and math scores; and
- Pennsylvania’s high school graduation rate ranks 15th nationally.
However good these state averages are, they hide the achievement gaps among socioeconomic groups. Scores on Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) exams vary along ethnic and class lines, as shown by the results of PSSA math scores in 2011 and 2014, which are similar to the reading scores in those years. Generally, ethnic minorities perform worse on these exams than white students. Furthermore, Pennsylvania’s achievement gaps between students attending the poorest and wealthiest schools are worse than the national average.
Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette analysis
Underlying these achievement gaps are funding gaps:
- Research shows that reducing funding inequality reduces the achievement gap. You can see the importance of funding to performance by looking at how PSSA math scores above dropped across the board as classroom funding levels fell after 2010-11. The following year the state cut more than $840 million from classrooms.  Reading scores showed similar drops.
- Pennsylvania ranks as worst in the nation in funding inequality between the poorest and wealthiest school districts, almost twice as bad as the second-worst state, Vermont. Pennsylvania spends about 34% more on students in the wealthiest districts despite the poorest districts needing more money to meet their higher needs.
Source: Washington Post analysis
- The inequality is due to the state’s low share of public education funding, 38%, ranking as one of the bottom 10 states nationally. Lower-income school districts are unable to raise the needed local revenue to make up the funding gap while the wealthier school districts can.
 PBPC analysis.