This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Janis Risch, the executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania, arrived at a television studio recently to be interviewed by a TV anchor about her group’s mission: organizing communities to demand change in how schools are funded in Pennsylvania.
“What school district do your kids go to?” she asked the anchor.
He thought a minute. “I don’t know,” he answered.
The exchange drove home the uphill battle faced by groups like hers in mobilizing around this complicated issue. Although it touches two subjects that affect just about everyone – education and taxes – most people don’t give it much thought.
For the TV anchor, learning the name of his child’s school – his district had a different name from his town – was as far as he’d gotten. Risch and Good Schools organizers have found in their travels around the state that few people know how schools are funded, or that Pennsylvania’s system is one of the most inequitable in the country.
“Education is perceived as a very local issue,” said Risch. “Even people who get the link between the quality of a school and the resources it receives are still just focused on their immediate needs.”
Many don’t even understand that schools are financed by a combination of local and state revenue, and that Pennsylvania contributes less per student than all but four other states. “People don’t realize their property taxes are so high because the state share is so low,” Risch said.
Even so, Good Schools and several allied organizations that are tackling the issue have made significant strides over the past several years. They’ve raised public awareness that how schools are financed is a statewide, not just a local, concern. And while change has been frustratingly slow, they’ve had significant victories in Harrisburg.
Three years ago, they helped push the legislature to approve additional state education aid for districts too poor to raise enough money on their own so they could reach a basic level of support per student – a supplement known as “foundation funding.”
The major breakthrough came last year when the state legislature agreed to a “costing-out study” that for the first time will put a price tag on an adequate education in Pennsylvania – and presumably put some pressure on the legislature to make sure that each district has enough money to provide that for each of its students.
The study, due in November, will calculate what a decent education will cost for students in different circumstances, especially those who live in poverty or don’t speak English as a first language. Under the current system, the neediest students often get the least resources.
The organizing groups hope the study’s findings will prod the legislature and the governor into overhauling that system. A collaborative that includes Good Schools, the Education Law Center, and the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center is meeting regularly to plan continued action in the next year.
One proposal to overhaul the funding system has already emerged in the Pennsylvania legislature. House Bill 1544, known as the Successful Schools Act of 2007, proposes to guarantee each district a level of funding comparable to that available in the state’s highest performing school districts, with the state providing $3.4 billion in additional aid to make that possible.
The energy for change has also been evident among Philadelphia parents. Parents United for Public Education mobilized along with Home and School Council and others to fight budget cuts this past school year after the revelation of a massive budget shortfall. Parents and students traveled to Harrisburg to demand a statewide funding overhaul that is more tuned into districts’ real needs and circumstances.
“The hanging question is, ‘What does a quality education look like,’” Risch said. “The costing-out study will help us determine what it takes to prepare all students for success. Once we have that, we can start a statewide discussion on the value of providing that kind of education to all children.”
Risch and Good Schools organizers travel around the state conducting workshops for faith-based groups, parent organizations, business associations, community groups – anyone who will listen.
With their charts and spreadsheets, they explain how some districts spend nearly three times as much per pupil as others; how adjoining districts can have wildly different tax burdens; and how some poorer districts tax themselves to the hilt but can raise only modest amounts for schools. In richer districts, where property values go up steadily, tax rates can remain low while still raising huge sums for education.
“The vast majority of districts are getting the short end of the stick because the system benefits very few districts financially,” said Justin DiBerardinis, who organizes for Good Schools in southeastern Pennsylvania. “But Pennsylvanians for the most part aren’t aware that there is a better way to do this.”
Donna Cooper, who formerly led Good Schools and is now Gov. Rendell’s chief policy director, has seen the issue from both sides. She said school funding is difficult to organize around because the hoped-for results – better schools – aren’t as tangible as the fruits of some other government spending.
“You can see if a hospital was built or not, a road was built, a bridge,” she said. “You ask for better schools, and you have no clear measure of cause and effect. The result is not guaranteed.”
But some local groups are beginning to organize successfully around the funding issue. A coalition of business and other groups in the Lehigh Valley called Education 2010! sponsored a costing-out study for Allentown in 2005, and it determined that the district would need $50 million more a year to provide a quality education to all the students. Through this business leadership coalition, various organizations, including some in surrounding suburban districts, are lobbying for change.
In Philadelphia, parent and advocacy groups successfully petitioned City Council to pass a bill sponsored by Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr. that will increase the School District’s local revenue by $18 million more a year by raising its share of the property tax. That additional revenue helped leverage more state funds because it addressed perennial complaints in Harrisburg that Philadelphia doesn’t contribute enough of its own money to education.
“I’ll be honest: when that was first put up, I thought it was going to be difficult to get it passed,” said School Reform Commission member Martin Bednarek.
Bednarek said the parent groups’ outreach to individual members and constant presence at Council meetings “had a huge role in that. You could see by the way Council voted, [the parents] were heard.”