In late March, following four months of sometimes acrimonious debate, the Superior Court of Pennsylvania ended arguments in the trial of William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al., a case challenging the constitutionality of the commonwealth’s school funding system. The case continues a long, contentious and storied history of judicial struggles to translate funding mandates into a fair education for every student. Like other landmark school finance cases, Penn brings the fundamentals of resource allocation and equity to the forefront of the public education debate.
Too often, these court cases reduce school finance to a binary issue: add more money or limit public investment. Yet, research and practical evidence point to a thornier debate: The amount of money matters — and so does how it’s used. These systems are complex, and even the experts get it wrong sometimes, as was recently acknowledged in Penn. Oversimplifying and overlooking this nuance produces no-solution solutions that either fail to adequately fund public schools so they can meet students’ diverse learning needs or neglect to direct funding specifically to that purpose.
Unfortunately, this is often the path of least resistance. It is easy to prioritize simplicity over effectiveness. Stakeholders who benefit from the status quo and understand how the systems work have no incentive to share that knowledge. School funding drives the largest single expenditure in most state budgets, and the politics that pit communities that benefit from the current system against those who don’t are fierce. As a result, policymakers often throw up their hands, abdicating the responsibility to enact needed change.
When this happens, these contentious issues often end up in the courthouse rather than the statehouse. Court cases can provoke meaningful change, but they carry a cost of time — and not just the time it takes to argue them in court. School finance cases take years, even decades, to wend their way through the courts before implementation of fairer policies can even begin. Students in schools where funding conditions were bad enough to provoke a lawsuit are often adults with kids of their own when judicial questions are resolved. Generations of students spend their entire educational careers in systems later ruled inequitable.
So what’s the remedy for improving funding inequity in schools? Financial systems should be as transparent and as simple as possible, but sophisticated enough to reflect and respond to the diverse needs of students and schools within a wide range of communities in a state. There needs to be less brinkmanship, and better decision-making. With the one-time infusion of federal COVID-19 relief aid, leaders have an opportunity to go beyond the “how much” and engage with the “how” — to learn what works to accelerate learning, expand strategies that ensure students have equitable access to a high-quality education, and sustain investments and opportunities in the long term. Here are three ways to get there:
Education leaders and advocates must acknowledge publicly and reflect in their decision-making that “how” is as important as “how much.” Funding discussions must become “yes, and” conversations about providing sufficient resources to align with students’ learning needs, measure the impact of policies and interventions, continue or expand what works well and move away from what’s not working. This continuous assessment, scaling or redirecting must happen at the local level, keeping students at the center of every decision. And it must define success not only as producing great outcomes on the first try, but also as failing, learning and rapidly changing course along the way.
Policymakers must be willing to wade into the nuance necessary to make the right decisions for students at the right time. The need for the “yes, and” conversation must extend to policymaking, where political polarization is the enemy of good systems that produce great outcomes for students. Policymakers must acknowledge that solutions to the challenges in schools lie neither in simply allocating more funding through a broken system nor in solely admonishing leaders and educators to use what they have more effectively. Policymakers must create the conditions for success by providing the right amount of resources, allocated equitably to address student and community needs, and the tools and supports to implement strong practices, including the capacity to assess, scale or redirect based on evidence. This will guide thinking about not just how much, but also how well states invest in children’s education.
School system leaders need more information and support in making good spending decisions. School systems become better versions of themselves when they act on data that show not only the progress of student outcomes, but also how well strategies and programs are implemented to support students. Data collection on student outcomes and progress has improved substantially in the last two decades. The same can’t be said about data on how the education sector makes resource-investment choices. Supporting great decision-making around funding starts with gathering different and better types of information, supporting leaders in using those data to drive decision-making and creating opportunities for decision-makers to learn from one another.
The outcome of Penn won’t be known for some time. But the case underscores a pervasive problem: School funding policy debates too often ping between the poles of “just add more money” and “just spend what you have better,” without acknowledging the middle ground where more realistic, practical and effective policymaking is often done. Unless that changes, the cycle of inadequately informed school funding policies leading to protracted court battles will continue — a lose-lose for students and schools.
Jennifer O’Neal Schiess is a partner at Bellwether Education in its policy and evaluation practice area, leading a body of work focused on school finance equity. She has served as an adviser to state leaders on matters of school funding policy.
Jason Willis is the director of strategic resource planning and implementation at WestEd. He has advised state and school system leaders on issues of school finance, resource allocation, and system design, including as an expert witness for the state in William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al.
Disclosure: Andy Rotherham co-founded Bellwether Education Partners. He sits on The 74’s board of directors.