This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Most states invest too little in education and distribute the funds inequitably, harming the academic potential and life chances of the country’s growing cadre of low-income students, according to two reports from civil rights groups released on Monday.
The reports, from the Education Law Center, based in Newark, N.J., and the D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights Education Fund, outline how school funding in almost all of the country is largely at odds with student need. In all but a handful of states, more affluent students get more resources, while the more impoverished get less.
"The inequities in public education are significant and growing," the Leadership Conference report said. "African-American, Latino, Native American and low-income students are disproportionately assigned to under-resourced schools and classes that provide diminished prospects for academic success when compared to their more privileged peers."
This trend is worsening as states are raising the academic bar for graduation, and new data show that students of color living below the poverty line now make up a majority of public school enrollment.
"Inadequate and inequitable school funding has been a problem for 40 years," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, which released its fourth annual national report card on the issue.
"It becomes exacerbated now, because the states cannot find the political courage to modernize their finances in an era when they are busy setting academic standards and holding schools accountable for their performance. What they haven’t done is attempted to figure out what are the resources all kids need to meet those standards."
Overall, ELC found that between 2007 and 2012, student poverty grew and poor students were more likely to be isolated in high-poverty districts.
Pennsylvania, according to the ELC’s data analysis, ranks eighth among the states in the amount of money it spends per student, but 41st on the fairness scale in how it distributes those funds. The report card in the study grades the fairness of each state’s funding system based on four factors: funding level, funding distribution, effort and coverage. The report gave Pennsylvania a D grade.
Pennsylvania is one of four states that the Leadership Conference profiled as exemplifying inequity.
The report profiled Martin Luther King High School in East Germantown, which over the last several years has lost extra funding that it received as a Promise Academy for such things as a longer school day and Saturday school. As a result, class size has soared and services for the high percentage of special education students have been slashed and may not meet legal requirements, the report said.
The commonwealth’s education financing system "is old-fashioned, out of date, antiquated, irrational — take your pick," Sciarra said. "It is disconnected from funding that students and high-poverty schools need. It is also a state that persists in continuing to provide less resources to poor districts."
Unlike most states, Pennsylvania does not have a formula for distributing state funds based on enrollment and student need. Instead the money is doled out based on past trends and current politics. A legislative commission is scheduled to propose a formula sometime this month, but any solution it comes up with must past muster with the General Assembly.
Gov. Wolf wants to raise education spending and has proposed a comprehensive tax overhaul to do so, but it is getting pushback from the Republican legislature.
Although the state provides more per pupil to poorer districts than to wealthier ones, the amounts don’t make up for the higher amounts of local funds that wealthier districts invest in their schools. As a result, for example, about half the approximately $13,000 annually spent per student in Philadelphia comes from the state. Lower Merion spends more than $22,000 per student, but almost all of that is raised locally.
"These reports show that, in far too many states, our nation’s schools are in dire straits," said the executive summary. "They also show that states and the federal government are not meeting the challenge. Instead, they’re often letting unacceptable situations go unaddressed."
Nationally, per-pupil spending among states varies widely. New York spends, on average, $12,000 more per pupil than Idaho. Many states, reluctant to reinvest in education after the recession, spent less in 2012 than they did in 2008.
Some educational analysts and officeholders, mostly Republicans, argue that there is ltitle correlation betwen spending and achievement. This position was held by former Gov. Tom Corbett and his advisers, whose budgets resulted in losses for school districts across the state after federal stimulus funding dried up.
Corbett abandoned an education formula, devised under his predecessor, Gov. Ed Rendell, that sought to determine how much each Pennsylvania district needed to adequately educate its students and started to ramp up state aid to provide those funds.
Legislators have also long complained that districts, especially Philadelphia, don’t spend their money effectively.
Sciarra of ELC said that if this is so, they have an obligation to do more than complain.
"If they think local districts aren’t spending money wisely or efficiently, they have the responsibility to step in and address that," Sciarra said. "They have a legal obligation. Plus, in Philadelphia, they run the district."
Philadelphia, taken over by Harrisburg in 2001, is the largest district in the country under state control.
The Leadership Conference report also discussed how courts have handed down decisions that allow states to maintain inadequate and inequitable spending on schools. After the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case that outlawed de jure segregation, subsequent rulings said there was no constitutional right to an education and gave states leeway to determine what their obligations were.
But still, the Leadership Conference report said, persistent disparities in educational resources are perpetuating "inequalities of opportunity and outcomes that have hobbled American democracy from generation to generation."