Commentary: Extra money for Pa. schools may fall short

 

Gov. Wolf, legislative leaders from both parties, and some Pennsylvania education advocates have championed Act 35, the public school funding formula that passed in June, as an important step forward in creating an equitable school-finance system.

Through the formula, $352 million in new state funding will be distributed to school districts across the state this year. Much of that money will go to districts serving the most economically disadvantaged student populations. For example, Philadelphia will receive an additional $50.2 million through Act 35.

But Pennsylvania tried something very similar less than a decade ago, and our research on that funding formula suggests that Act 35 will still leave our most impoverished districts with far less money than they need to adequately educate their students. As long as districts can't afford to meet the education needs of all Pennsylvania schoolchildren, we shouldn't expect student performance to significantly improve.

Consider the track record.

In 2008, Act 61 created a funding formula for Pennsylvania. Like Act 35, it attempted to address the needs of individual school districts by accounting for factors such as district size, student poverty, and students learning English. Act 61 also aimed to lessen the statewide adequacy gap. The state set an "adequacy target" - the amount necessary for all students to meet state achievement standards - for every district. Districts with spending that fell short of their adequacy target received additional state aid.

The poorest districts with adequacy spending gaps - places like Philadelphia, Chester, Reading, and York - received an average of just $287 per pupil in additional state aid between 2008 and 2011.

To be clear, district spending and academic achievement improved over the Act 61 period, for both rich and poor districts. But using rigorous statistical techniques, we found that the preexisting differences in achievement and spending between districts with and without adequacy gaps did not narrow, on average, as a result of Act 61. In other words, Act 61 did not bring students in poor districts any closer to the achievement levels of their peers in more affluent districts.

Act 61 and Act 35 both created formulas for equitably distributing money to school districts. But our study suggests that under Act 61, not enough money was made available to narrow achievement gaps. If the amount of new state aid distributed under Act 35 is similar to its predecessor - and so far it is - there is little evidence to suggest that it will be better at improving the educational circumstances of the state's poorest districts.

Let's take a closer look at Philadelphia.

The $50.2 million in new state aid Philadelphia received this year under Wolf's budget amounts to $253 per pupil. That represents just a 1.8 percent increase in total per-pupil spending. Even though Philadelphia will receive a larger share of new state education aid than more affluent districts, our study of Act 61 suggests that the additional per-pupil aid to Philadelphia will be insufficient to reduce spending and achievement gaps compared with more affluent districts across the state.

Without a yardstick - like the state-determined adequacy targets under Act 61 - for each of the state's 500 districts, and without enough money to meet that measure for each and every district, the hope behind Act 35 will likely prove false for districts with the greatest need.

In an op-ed about education spending earlier this month, Wolf wrote, "I know our work is not nearly done." We hope that state leaders take a close look at the limited progress Pennsylvania's students made under Act 61 and realize just how much work is needed to provide equal educational opportunities for all of Pennsylvania's students.

Rand Quinn (raq@upenn.edu) and Matthew Steinberg (steima@gse.upenn.edu) are professors and Cameron Anglum (anglumjc@gse.upenn.edu) is a doctoral student, all at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Their latest paper in the National Tax Journal examined the impact of Pennsylvania's Act 61.