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Racial bias evident in Pa. funding system, analysis shows

Mostly White districts get more aid per student than equally poor districts with more students of color.

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

During the gubernatorial campaign, advocates emphasized that Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has no education funding formula. In other words, it has no rational, predictable, enrollment-based system for distributing state school aid.

The process now in place is based on an accumulation of old formulas and ad hoc decisions made over decades.

And a new analysis shows in dramatic fashion that this system, now under review by a special legislative commission, has a discriminatory impact based on race.

Data analyst David Mosenkis of Mount Airy, who works as an independent consultant, has determined that districts with similar rates of poverty that are almost all White get higher per-pupil amounts of basic education funding than districts that are more racially diverse.

Mosenkis, a member of Germantown Jewish Center, is a lay leader with the faith-based community organizing group POWER, which has made fair education funding one of its central issues. The data analyst set out to determine whether the amount of funding a district gets correlates with its racial composition. He said the findings were striking.

“If you take basic funding as a simple measure and control for one factor such as poverty, you expect the points to be scattered,” he said. “You would expect that race or color of the students shouldn’t make more of a difference than, say, height or weight. But to see such a clear delineation based on race tells me that the current funding is biased based on this factor.”

Mosenkis followed a simple statistical construct by using a linear formula showing how much a district should get per student based on its poverty rate. His graph shows a “best-fit regression line” through the points. The 50 percent of the districts that fall above the line get more than expected, while the other half that fall below the line get less than expected.

Then he colored the districts yellow or brown based on whether they fell above or below the median in terms of non-White vs. White students. His numbers show that half the state’s 500 districts are 92 percent White or more. The yellow dots are districts that are at least 92 percent White and the brown dots are districts below 92 percent.

He has placed an interactive dashboard online with which it is possible to see which district each dot represents and its relevant data. His analysis is based on the state’s school funding allocations to districts for the current year.

Mosenkis said he became interested in analyzing the racial impact of Pennsylvania’s school funding when a neighbor told him about two lawsuits filed in the 1990s on this very point.

One was a state lawsuit that the Commonwealth Court declined to hear, ruling – as all Pennsylvania courts have for more than two decades – that school funding is not a “justiciable” issue. That lawsuit, called Marrero v. Commonwealth, was brought by several groups in Philadelphia and highlighted the racial disparity numbers.

It was thrown out on the same day as a long-running case brought by a coalition of poor rural schools that argued these districts did not get sufficient funds to give their students an adequate education.

The other case was a federal lawsuit filed by the School District, the city of Philadelphia, and other parties. But it was abandoned in 2001 – at the insistence of officials in the administrations of former governors Tom Ridge and Mark Schweiker when they were arranging the state financial bailout and the state takeover of the city schools.

“It is good and it’s right,” said attorney Michael Churchill of Mosenkis’s analysis of the state’s current education funding. Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) was involved in both the 1990s court cases.

Mosenkis’s findings are “completely consistent with the information we were prepared to file and the basis for the federal complaint,” he said.

Churchill noted that the disparities seem to have gotten worse in the intervening years, after the state takeover and its promise to right the District’s financial ship. This is so despite an interlude when former Philadelphia mayor Ed Rendell became governor, instituted a study of school funding, and temporarily committed the state to higher amounts of state aid and a fairer distribution formula based on districts’ real needs.

“The allegation [in the lawsuits] was that the state system of funding public education had a discriminatory impact on districts with more minority students,” said Churchill. “It turned out exactly as this study shows – the more minority students a district had, when controlled for poverty, the less funding there was.”

When the original lawsuits were filed, just 14 to 16 of the state’s 500 districts had a majority of non-White students. Today, according to Mosenkis’s analysis, the number is 32.

Another striking finding of Mosenkis’s numbers: All but two of the districts in the five-county Philadelphia region — Chester-Upland and Avon Grove – get less-than-expected state aid, based on their rates of poverty. And all but one district — Palisades in Bucks County – are below the 92 percent White threshold.

So why does the funding affect districts differently based on racial composition?

Both Churchill and Mosenkis suggest that it is because of historical decisions regarding how school aid is distributed. This would include formula tweaks that gave extra funds to small districts (impoverished rural districts that are almost all White are generally sparsely populated), supplements for being geographically spread out, and the practice of “holding harmless,” which means that if a district declines in enrollment it doesn’t get less money as a result.

The districts with more students of color are mostly larger and in urban areas, including Allentown, Harrisburg, York, Erie, Lancaster, Reading, and Wilkes-Barre.

Mosenkis wants to present his analysis to the state’s commission on basic education funding, which is charged with devising a new way of distributing state education aid. Gov.-elect Tom Wolf ran on a platform that promised to funnel more education money to districts generally and devise a fairer funding formula that meets the needs of all students. The commission is mostly legislators and mostly Republican.

“The commission should absolutely see it,” said Churchill. This disparity correlated with race, he said, has been true for a very long time.

The commission plans to meet in Philadelphia on Nov. 18 and Nov. 19. Mosenkis hopes to be there.