A recent report by the Education Law Center found years of state underfunding has led to widespread inequalities in Pennsylvania public schools.
Titled “Money Matters in Education Justice: Addressing Race and Class Inequities in Pennsylvania’s Public School System” and released on March 3, the report found those inequalities are felt most by students of color and students in low-income communities.
“Of the funding we have and we do appropriate, Pennsylvania is doing it in ways that reinforce inequality,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center.
The Education Law Center is a nonprofit law firm that advocates for public school students. Klehr said the firm launched the study on fair education funding in 2013. Pennsylvania did not have a fair funding formula at the time, which helps the state find a way to distribute dollars to school districts equally.
“As we started looking at the data, what became so clear is the racial justice lens you need to see what’s happening,” Klehr said in an interview.
Pennsylvania ranks 46th in the nation when it comes to the state’s share of education funding. The report found the state is also “overly reliant” on local funding for schools. This is because Pennsylvania is one of 14 states that regressively funds schools.
Regressive school funding means that the state gives less money to schools with a larger number of students that come from low-income families. As a result, schools with fewer white students fall short in funding by nearly $2,000 per student.
“It should be that high-need districts get more funding from the state,” Klehr said. “The state isn’t providing them with dollars they need to adequately educate their students.”
These gaps in funding have led to segregated school districts, where the lines between poverty and color often go hand in hand. In a report released last August by the nonprofit organization Edbuild, Pennsylvania ranked fourth among the top 10 most segregating school district boundaries in the nation.
The report found that the state is between $3 billion to $4.5 billion short of giving public schools what they need to adequately function.
“That’s just to get adequacy,” Klehr said. “That’s not the Cadillac version ... that’s just to get basic needs met.”
The Education Law Center took two courses of action to push the state to increase school funding. The first was filing a lawsuit claiming the state violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. Under the constitution, the General Assembly is required to maintain a “thorough and efficient system of public education” for Pennsylvania students. The lawsuit is still pending under the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
The second option for the law firm was working in collaboration with the state legislature. Through their advocacy efforts, the Education Law Center helped convince the state to adopt a fair education formula in spring 2016. The new formula takes into account students living in poverty, special needs education and English as a second language requirements.
However, the formula only applies to 6 percent of the $5.9 billion the state spends on public education.
“A formula is only as good as the dollars and cents that go through with it,” Klehr said.
In a statement, Press Secretary J.J. Abbott said Gov. Tom Wolf has maintained a commitment to education since taking office. The governor called for an increase in basic education funding by $125 million in his budget proposal for 2017-2018.
“His priority is protecting education and reversing the cuts made under the previous administration,” Abbott stated.
Klehr welcomed Wolf’s “crucial investments” in education through his state budget proposal. Still, she says the state needs to commit to sustained funding increases. Citing research by the economist Rucker Johnson, Klehr said sustained spending on education leads to lower rates of poverty among adults and increased adult wages.
“Sustained increase in state investment over time will allow our students to have access to quality public education,” she said.
Wolf’s budget proposal is now facing House and Senate budget hearings. The deadline to pass the budget is June 30.