'Moral scandal': Gov. Wolf proposal, lawsuit aim to cut Pennsylvania school funding gap

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Megan Tomasic, The Tribune-Review, Greensburg
·8 min read
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Apr. 17—Even if Gov. Tom Wolf's fair funding formula proposal passes the legislature, area schools could still face a funding gap that has plagued Pennsylvania districts for years.

The gap — highlighted in 2015, when it was reported that Pennsylvania had one of the nation's starkest spending gaps between rich and poor school districts — has led to schools across the state, including several in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, to be shortchanged thousands of dollars per student each year.

That shortfall is higher for districts with higher poverty rates, as well as districts that have higher numbers of Black and Hispanic students, according to a report this month from the Keystone Research Center and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

"Our new research conclusively demonstrates that funding for K-12 education in our state is not only inadequate but highly inequitable," said Marc Stier, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. "The underfunding of school districts that teach a high share of students living in poverty, Black students and brown students is a moral scandal."

According to the report, districts with the highest number of people living in poverty have a funding gap of $3,167 per student. Schools with the lowest number of people living in poverty have a funding gap of $305 per student. Of the state's 500 school districts, just 79 — or 16% — are adequately funded.

That means 84% of public school students in Pennsylvania are in districts that are underfunded.

A new bill has been introduced in the state House of Representatives to increase funding for Pennsylvania's most under-resourced schools.

On Thursday, a coalition of education advocacy groups called Level Up Pennsylvania launched a campaign to increase state funding for the 100 most-underfunded school districts in the state. One in five of the districts on the list are in the Pittsbugh region, including Greensburg Salem, Jeannette, New Kensington-Arnold, Steel Valley, Sto-Rox, Uniontown Area, Washington and Woodland Hills.

Nationally, Pennsylvania ranks 44th for the amount it spends on public K-12 education, with the gap in per-student spending being as wide as $4,800 between the richest and poorest school districts in the Keystone State, according to the Level Up coalition.

Wolf's proposal would shrink the funding gap for districts with the highest number of people living in poverty to $1,615 per student, found the report from the Keystone Research Center and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center.

As the budget currently stands, 11% of state education money goes through the fair funding formula, which was passed by a bipartisan commission in 2016. The formula determines funding based on factors like enrollment rates, the number of students learning English or experiencing poverty and median household income.

Wolf's proposal would instead put 85% of the funds, or $6.4 billion, into the formula. An additional $1.15 billion would be spent to ensure no district loses funding.

For district's with the highest number of Black students, the funding gap would drop from $2,646 to $1,153 per student. That's a 44% reduction in the gap. Similarly, districts with the highest number of Hispanic students would see the funding gap decrease from $3,132 to $1,536 per student, or a 51% reduction, according to the report.

"To look at these numbers, to recognize we are talking about the future of our children and to recognize the future we are giving our children varies so much by the ZIP code in which they are born," Stier said.

Western Pa. gap

Several Allegheny and Westmoreland districts are seeing fewer dollars compared to other districts in the area, an analysis The Public Interest Law Center released last year shows.

According to the analysis, Allegheny County districts with the largest shortfall per student includes Sto-Rox, $4,576; Baldwin-Whitehall, $3,548; South Allegheny, $3,398; McKeesport, $3,217; and Highlands, $2,893. Carlynton had the smallest shortfall ($34), and more than 20 districts had no funding gap, the report shows.

Every school district in Westmoreland County experience a funding gap, the analysis found. The largest were seen in Greensburg Salem, $3,344 per student; Southmoreland, $3,012; Greater Latrobe, $2,905; Yough, $2,872; and Mt. Pleasant, $2,654. Monessen reported the smallest shortfall, at $48 per student.

Per pupil spending across both counties also varies, according to data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

During the 2018-19 school year, the latest data available, per pupil spending ranged from $13,103 at the Baldwin-Whitehall School District to $26,042 at Wilkinsburg. In Westmoreland County, per pupil spending ranges from $11,511 at Norwin to $18,891 at Monessen City School District.

That's compared to the state, which spent $16,395 per pupil on average in 2018, census data shows.

The problem, according to Cheryl Kleiman, an attorney in the Education Law Center's Pittsburgh office, is that Pennsylvania contributed a low share of education funding to schools. Last year, almost 36% of school district funds came from the state, according to data from the National Education Association.

Compared to other states, Pennsylvania ranks 47th in terms of education funding, the association found.

That means, Kleiman said, that districts are forced to turn to their communities for funds, often by raising property taxes.

"It really becomes dependent on that local wealth," Kleiman said. "We see that low-wealth districts are actually being taxed at pretty high rates. But because they have less wealth to tax than their wealthy neighbors, they actually can't generate a lot of revenue."

Over the years, districts have seemingly turned to foundations to fund certain programs. A 2014 study reported by The New York Times showed that nonprofit organizations started by parents and community leaders tripled in number and more than quadrupled the dollars generated between 1995 and 2010.

However, the report showed that communities with higher median incomes were more likely to establish fundraising groups and were more likely to raise more money per student compared to less affluent neighborhoods.

While seemingly not a perfect solution, Wolf's proposal of changing how the fair funding formula is used could help to change districts' reliance on local taxpayers.

Woodland Hills Superintendent James Harris said the fair funding formula would help the district in terms of receiving state money. However, he noted there are gaps in the formula, which does not take into account the number of students with special needs.

"I think other adjustments need to be made to account for districts like Woodland Hills, like Pottstown, like Reading, like Harrisburg, like Penn Hills, like McKeesport, where there are additional requirements needed to educate our students," Harris said.

In Westmoreland County, Hempfield stands to gain almost $400,000 under Wolf's 2021-22 basic education funding plan, said Business Manager Wayne Wismar. Still, other districts, like New Kensington-Arnold, don't stand to gain or lose funds if the formula is implemented, according to Jeffrey McVey, director of administrative services.

Overall, Pennsylvania districts will need $4.6 billion more invested over time to adequately educate students, according to The Public Interest Law Center report.

In the courts

Another possible solution to the funding gap has been winding through the courts for years.

In 2014, parents and school districts sued legislative leaders, state education officials and the governor for not upholding the General Assembly's constitutional obligation to provide an education that gives all students necessary resources to meet academic standards. The lawsuit is being represented by the Education Law Center and The Public Interest Law Center.

"It's really going to be an opportunity to make sure that the deprivations that result from both not providing enough money for public schools and then making sure that those funds are distributed equitably is really what's on trial," Kleiman said.

A trial is tentatively scheduled for September.

"The lawsuit is really our tool to break the logjam in Harrisburg," Kleiman said. "We didn't need a lawsuit for the General Assembly to address this. This is a longstanding problem. They can address this funding problem today. They are the only entity that can do that, and the problem continues to grow unless they do."

As groups across the state wait for the case to be resolved, work is still being done to call on legislatures to change the system.

Stier, of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, noted that something along the lines of Wolf's fair funding proposal is needed.

"We are not wedded to Gov. Wolf's proposal as a way of solving the problem of inadequacy and inequity. We're open to other ideas, but we think some proposal along these lines is a necessary first step to reducing the distribution of school funding in the state, which is both inadequate and inequitable," Stier said. "The time to act is now."

Megan Tomasic is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 724-850-1203, mtomasic@triblive.com or via Twitter .