This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A mill is $1 in property tax levied per thousand dollars in assessed value. In districts where property values are relatively low, residents must tax themselves at a much higher rate to raise the same amount of money.
William Penn is emblematic of a widespread phenomenon across Pennsylvania: rural and urban districts with high tax efforts, high poverty levels, an
d underfunded public schools. Such districts risk pushing out residents and businesses if they increase their already-high property taxes, and therefore opt to let their expenditures on education stagnate.
The school funding terrain is drastically different in districts like Lower Merion, a wealthy, suburban district with a robust local tax base. In 2008-09 Lower Merion took in only 10 percent of its public school money from the state, maintained a slim millage rate of 13.8, less than half the rate in William Penn School District, and still was able to spend much more – $5,000 more per student than the levels recommended by the costing-out study.
Philadelphia’s property tax millage rate is higher than Lower Merion’s but nowhere near that of William Penn. Only 55 percent of what is raised through property taxes in Philadelphia goes to fund education. But Philadelphia also uses a variety of other local taxes to help pay for schools.