This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The size of the pie matters, not just how you slice it.
This is one finding of a new report from the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Philadelphia Research Initiative, which looked at 10 big-city school districts across the country and compared how the state funding formulas of each affected funding at the district level.
A funding formula, essentially a plan for the state’s distribution of its education dollars among districts, often takes into account factors such as student needs and demographics at the district level.
Larry Eichel, the project director of the Philadelphia Research Initiative for Pew, spelled out two main questions that the report set out to answer. The first is how per-pupil funding in Philadelphia stacks up against other big-city districts.
The second is: "Since there’s been so much talk about the absence of a state funding formula in Pennsylvania, how much of a difference do those formulas make on other big-city districts?" said Eichel.
Researchers chose the 10 comparison cities (Boston, Milwaukee, Cleveland, New York, Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis, Tampa and Dallas) for their structural and/or demographic similarities to Philadelphia. Each receives state funding determined via a funding formula. As the report highlighted, Pennsylvania is one of only three states that do not allot their state education money with the help of a funding formula. Philadelphia students received less in per-pupil funding overall than seven of the 10 comparison cities.
In all of these comparisons, the Pew report focused largely on one point.
"Having a state funding formula that takes into account student needs doesn’t necessarily provide a high level of state revenue or overall revenue in the district," Eichel said. "The overall level of state spending is very important, too."
To that point, looking at some of the comparison districts — within Pennsylvania and in the nationwide group — those with a high proportion of state aid still had relatively low levels of per-pupil spending.
Funding distribution in Pennsylvania, briefly
Pennsylvania has not had a funding formula for 20 of the last 23 years. The exception years came under former Gov. Ed Rendell.
But there is some residual needs-based allocation left over from past funding formulas through the state’s "hold harmless" rule, which ensures that districts will not receive less funding than the year before, regardless of changes to enrollment.