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Experts: Yes, Philly schools are underfunded … by $1 billion

Study ordered by the legislature finds huge shortfalls in education funding in districts across the state.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Philadelphia needs $1 billion more a year, or nearly $5,000 additional per pupil, in order to educate all students to academic proficiency, according to a report released November 14 by the State Board of Education.

The long-awaited “costing-out” study concluded that Pennsylvania as a whole needs to spend $4.8 billion more than it does now to give every child a quality education. That adds up to nearly $22 billion, compared to the $17 billion spent now in the Commonwealth.

The report also concluded that in addition to not spending enough, educational resources in the Commonwealth are distributed inequitably. Just 27 of the Commonwealth’s 501 school districts, most of them in the Philadelphia suburbs, spend more than enough to educate their students to the standards, it said.

“This is truly about the American dream,” said state board member Jim Barker, who is also the superintendent of the Erie school district. “We have to ask ourselves, are we giving every child a chance in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?”

The study was ordered a year ago by the General Assembly to determine what it would cost annually to bring all students to proficiency in reading and math and mastery of state academic standards in 12 areas by 2014. The State Board of Education contracted with Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc. of Denver, which has done other such studies, to conduct it.

Education advocacy groups called on legislators and Gov. Rendell to take heed and move quickly to craft a fairer school funding system. But initial reaction from Harrisburg was cautious. Gov. Rendell didn’t personally respond, but left it to Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak to issue a statement. He called it a “wake-up call that, despite all we have done to increase our vital investments in public education, we must accelerate the rate of progress.”

But Zahorchak didn’t answer directly when asked if the study’s results will be reflected in the governor’s 2008-09 budget, saying “we can cross our fingers and hope the legislature takes up their study and puts it into action.”

Some legislative leaders, particularly Republicans, raised flags about proposing any new taxes and did not rush to embrace the study. A bipartisan group moved to establish a joint legislative commission that would develop a new funding system over the next year, a strategy endorsed by advocacy groups.

“We are optimistic that the legislative commission can be a vehicle for moving the costing-out study forward by creating broadly supported recommendations … based on the principles of adequacy, accountability, equity, efficiency and predictability,” said Baruch Kintisch, staff attorney with the Education Law Center. His organization has joined with Good Schools Pennsylvania and the Education Policy and Leadership Center to promote funding reform.

Philadelphia officials, who have been arguing for more than a decade that the District needed more funding, especially from the state, welcomed the conclusions.

“The findings are very important for us,” said School Reform Commission chairwoman Sandra Dungee Glenn. “This is a rallying cry for adequate and appropriate funding for public education.”

The study’s authors determined the optimum amount needed in each district by studying spending by successful districts, consulting with Pennsylvania educators on what determines quality, reviewing research on effective practice, and analyzing district-by-district spending and performance. They also made allowances for district size and regional wage and cost-of-living differentials.

The study determined that the base needed for educating the average child in the average district is $8,008. Then it added amounts for student circumstances – poverty, disabilities, lacking English proficiency, and giftedness – coming up with an average amount statewide of $12,057 per student.

Using that formula, the study said that Philadelphia, with its high concentrations of students in poverty and having special needs, requires $14,919 per student while now spending just $9,947.

The study also measured the tax efforts of each local school district, and found that the poorest districts tax themselves heavily, but raise relatively little. By contrast, richer districts have a relatively low tax effort but are able to raise more money. The study showed that the richest district had 84 times the wealth per student as the poorest district.

It also said that Pennsylvania does not tax its residents as heavily as surrounding states. If it brought state taxes to the same level as the average in New Jersey, New York, Maryland and its other neighbors, it could raise between $3 billion and $6 billion.

Of the 27 districts found to be spending more than required according to this analysis, 16 are in suburban Philadelphia.

“This shows yet again that there are great unfunded needs in the state and that the legislature has failed in its duty,” said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

The study’s authors said that any infusion of new funds could be used to reduce class size, especially in the lower grades; add nurses, counselors, academic coaches, tutors and security; target funding for students with special needs; implement full-day kindergarten; add after-school and summer school for low-performing students; and expand training for teachers and principals.

Philadelphia students, most from Philadelphia Student Union and one from Youth United for Change, helped fill two buses that traveled to Harrisburg for the report’s release.

“They didn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already know that we needed,” said Saeda Washington, a YUC member and senior at Kensington Business. “They gave us numbers, which will help.” She said she was “hopeful” that legislators would respond.