Issue: State Budget

Identifying the issues, influencing legislation and shaping the debate on key education issues

Pa. Public Schools Need a Fair, Equitable Funding Formula 

The way Pennsylvania pays for its public schools has a long and inconsistent history. William Penn's "Frame of Government" in 1682 proposed a system of public education, but did not create one. The state constitutions of 1776 and 1790 both required the legislature to establish a system of public schools, organized through the counties, and the 1790 constitution went so far as to declare that the poor would be educated at public expense.

However, it was not until 1834 that the General Assembly adopted the Free Schools Act and established the system of public education. At the same time, the legislature lit the fuse on the powder keg of financing by requiring the counties to raise from local taxes two dollars for every dollar they received from the state. Counties that refused to impose the tax forfeited their right to state funds. The following year, the argument over public school funding began in earnest – a debate that continues almost 180 years later.

Fast forward to 2014.  Though state government and local school districts have been partners in funding public schools of the commonwealth, this partnership is less than equal. The state's contribution as a percentage of basic instructional expenses has declined from over 50% during the mid 1970's, to less than 35% today. As a comparison, almost every state pays a larger percentage of overall public education costs than Pennsylvania does.  On average, other states contribute 44% of total education funding, with a local share of about 35%.  In Pennsylvania, however, local school districts must make up 53.5% of all public education costs.  Pennsylvania ranks 42 among the 50 states in the amount of state subsidies allocated to support elementary and secondary education. 

On a statewide basis, the decline in state aid now translates into roughly $14 billion dollars in funding that must be generated at the local level. The majority of this funding gap is covered by property taxes, which is troubling from a statewide perspective, but crippling for many individual school districts. Asking impoverished districts with atrophied tax bases to continually generate greater resources at the local level only serves to expand the inequities of the current system and widens the gap between poor and affluent school districts.

Making matters worse is the fact that there are great disparities in how state education funds are distributed to school districts. In recent years, basic education funding has been distributed without the benefit of a funding formula. School districts are provided a base amount and possible additional funding given through a patchwork of supplemental components. Unfortunately, these supplements and the amount of funding they provide can easily -- and arbitrarily--be changed from year to year. 

We should not pick and choose which children and which communities receive adequate support to provide a great education for every student.  We urge the General Assembly to take action to establish a formula that is predictable and addresses adequacy and equity for all school districts.  House Bill 1738, sponsored by Rep. Bernie O'Neill (R-Bucks) and passed by the House of Representatives in January, establishes a bipartisan commission to make recommendations for a new funding formula for basic education. Under the bill, the commission would identify factors that could be used to determine the distribution of basic education funding among school districts, including a district's wealth, geographic price differences, enrollment levels, local support and other factors. We urge the Senate to likewise pass House Bill 1738 and send it to Gov. Corbett for his signature as quickly as possible.