State Education Funding Matters – A Tale of Two States (PA and NJ)

Stephen Herzenberg |

A new “big-data” base on U.S. school districts provides new evidence that Pennsylvania has many high-performing schools but many lower-income rural and urban districts that perform less well. A likely culprit: Pennsylvania’s inadequate state funding for schools. Low state school funding leaves moderate- and lower-income districts poorly funded and with less in total funding than affluent districts, even though the lower-income districts serve students with higher rates of poverty, non-English speaking families, and other challenges that hold back achievement. Most school districts in neighboring New Jersey perform well regardless of their income and wealth, thanks in part to more generous and equitable state funding for schools of moderate means.

The new data base, the Stanford Education Data Archive will be a gold mine for education researchers and policymakers. While waiting for definitive studies, we take a first look here at what the data base offers based on a New York Times story and interactive on-line tool posted earlier this month.

The story highlighted that the Chicago Public Schools delivered one of the highest improvements in student test scores from 3rd grade to 8th grade between 2009 and 2015. Its interactive tool allows users to enter a school district, and to extract information on how that school and 19 comparison districts in the same state performed over this period. The comparison districts change each time you use the tool, even if the school district you enter stays the same. The basic picture of how the school district entered performs relative to other districts does not change, suggesting that the researchers have been careful to make the other districts a “representative” comparison group.

We used the tool to examine the performance of Pennsylvania school districts. We then used the tool to generate information on New Jersey school districts. The table profiles Philadelphia and 19 other Pennsylvania school districts.

The bar chart shows how Philadelphia and the other 19 Pennsylvania districts rank relative to other school districts across the country – the “percentile” ranking of each school district based on its 3rd-grade-to-8th-grade test score gain. (The highest-ranked school district nationally falls in the 100th percentile, the lowest-scoring in the 1st percentile.)

Eight of 20 Pennsylvania school districts rank at the 81st percentile or higher (i.e., in the top fifth of schools). Another eight rank at the 35th percentile or below (i.e., roughly in the bottom third of schools). When we entered Pittsburgh, Erie, Reading, and Allentown, the data base extracted other groups of 20 school districts which included some near the top of the national percentile rankings and others near the bottom.

We then used the tool to generate information on New Jersey school districts. As shown below, when we entered Camden, the data base provided information on 20 school districts half of which ranked in the top fifth nationally (for average test-score gain) and all but two of which ranked in the top half. When we entered Trenton, 11 of the 20 New Jersey districts extracted ranked above the 90th percentile nationally and 15 in the top half.

One explanation for the more uniform high performance in New Jersey: New Jersey more generously funds its moderate- and low-income schools, leading to more equitable funding across districts independent of their income and wealth. Based on U.S. Department of Education data, New Jersey ranks second out of 50 states for total school (state, local, and federal) funding to its highest-poverty quartile of school districts (school districts with the highest-poverty rate that educate a quarter of K-12 school students) and fourth lowest for the gap in funding between its lowest-poverty quartile of school districts and highest-poverty quartile. Pennsylvania ranks 23rd in total funding for its highest-poverty quartile of school districts and 50th — dead last – for the gap in funding between rich districts and poor.

More generous state funding enables New Jersey to achieve educational opportunity for all. In Pennsylvania, the high performance of many school districts suggests that educational opportunity for all remains within reach – but only if the state provides additional and more adequate school funding to moderate- and lower-income rural and urban school districts.

In the past, lack of detailed, reliable, and comparable data on school-district performance has held back policymakers’ ability to understand “what works” in education. The new Stanford education data archive helps fills this vacuum. It will be invaluable in the effort to understand more fully the impact of school funding. It will also help unravel what districts such as Chicago – and Peters township and Northeastern York in Pennsylvania – do well that other districts can emulate to achieve educational opportunity for all.