Last February, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court declared that our system for funding public schools, grades K-12, is actually unconstitutional; it deprives children living in poor communities “equal protection under the law,” and fails to deliver “a thorough and efficient system.” Reforming the funding system, as we have been ordered to do, will have great social and economic benefits, in addition to simply doing what our constitution requires.
The extent of inequality and inadequacy is dramatic. Take the high school graduation as a measure of effectiveness. Data from the state department of education shows the average graduation rate in Pennsylvania was 86% in 2022, ranging from 56% in one district to 100% in others. Here in Bucks County, it ranges from 74% to 96%. The poorer communities are the ones with the lowest rate. This is because Pennsylvania school districts rely mainly on local property tax revenue to fund the schools in our community. The state only contributes 37% to total basic education spending; the federal government contributes 11%. Wealthy communities easily cover their share of the cost, while poor communities simply don’t have the tax base needed to generate adequate school revenue, even with higher tax rates than wealthy districts.
Since the state has the constitutional responsibility to provide a fair and effective education to every child, the burden of funding that should be carried mainly by the state not local communities. A student’s access to quality education should not depend on where they live, but it does.
This is not a new or easy problem to solve. The state has attempted to address the gap with a “fair funding formula” and “level up” funds which target the poorest schools, but those programs are not channeling enough incremental money to address the funding needs. We need to take advantage of the great research that has been done to find out what schools can do to improve outcomes. While there are persistent economic and demographic factors that are hard to control, there are controllable factors that would improve school attendance, student engagement, and the social-emotional health and skills of students. For example, chronic absenteeism can be addressed by reducing teacher turnover and increasing access to school counselors in schools with the greatest need. Raising teacher salaries helps morale, improves retention, and attracts quality candidates. Those things reduce student dropout rate.
Pennsylvania has a lot of catching up to do. But the cost of not addressing the problem intelligently is high. People with a high school education have increased lifetime earnings of about $400,000 (about $10,000 a year), better health and are less likely to become involved in crime. More high school graduates result in higher tax revenues and lower spending on healthcare, crime and welfare.
Funding education is a problem but it is also an opportunity to address chronic social and economic problems.
Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission is preparing a report, due Nov. 30, with recommendations for fixing inefficiencies and inequities in funding public schools.
Implementing charter school funding reform and phasing out the outdated “hold harmless” provision would address inequities and also generate almost $1 billion. Closing the corporate tax loophole would also provide additional dollars the state could use to increase its share of school funding.
Our state legislators need to be sure that the state increases its share of school funding and that the money is distributed where it is needed most. The court has mandated that it be done, but more importantly, it makes good social and economic sense.
Please let your state legislators know that every student in Pennsylvania is entitled to adequate educational resources. Submit comments to the commission at basiceducationfundingcommission.com/contact/.
Ardith Talbott lives in Solebury.