Quantity Counts 2004

What do you do when you want more money and you already boast the 3rd highest per-pupil revenue in the nation and the highest teacher salaries in the country, when adjusted for the cost of living? If you are part of the public education establishment, the answer is simple: Obfuscate.

The latest effort to leverage more money out of Pennsylvania taxpayers uses the Quality Counts 2004 report from Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trusts. Headlines across the state announced that “Pa. is nearly last in study of school-funding equity.” One newspaper completely confused the report’s findings by erroneously titling its article “Pa. ranks 49th of 50 in public school aid.”

With extensive news coverage of the report, the tactic of fooling most of the people most of time worked once again for the public education special interest groups. Although Quality Counts gave Pennsylvania a grade of B for “resource adequacy,” it was the D- for “resource equity” that was trumpeted by various organizations demanding more money from taxpayers. For them, it is quantity–not quality–that truly counts.

Just last month, The Commonwealth Foundation published a Policy Brief which empirically refutes the false and misleading claims that the state has reduced its “share” of funding for public schools, or that it has created a “funding gap” by providing inequitable funding for economically disadvantaged students. Media outlets across the state received this detailed analysis of data from the Pennsylvania Department of Education. (The full the report, “Pennsylvania’s Education Funding Gap,” is available at www.CommonwealthFoundation.org.)

The reality that many reporters and editorial boards across the Commonwealth refuse to accept is that between 1969-70 and 2001-02 the state increased its average per-student appropriation to local districts by nearly 73% in inflation-adjusted dollars. The fact that local per-student revenues increased at an even higher rate (132%) should not be twisted into a claim that the state failed to pay its fair share. Yet the public school lobby has successfully convinced the media that raising taxes should be a competitive sport–if local taxes increase by 200%, the state is obligated to match that or stand accused of “inequitable funding” or failing to pay its “fair share.”

It is true, however, that the state does inequitably allocate state tax dollars to economically disadvantaged students. But the funding gap is not a deficit–it is a surplus!

In the 2001-02 school year, economically disadvantaged students received, on average, $1,030 more per student in state funding than did non-economically disadvantaged students. The data reveal that the state cannot be factually charged with inequitable funding in the sense that the “have-nots” get fewer state tax dollars than the “haves.”

School funding in Pennsylvania is only inequitable in that it increasingly takes more money from wealthier districts to redistribute to less wealthy ones. For example, in the 2001-02 school year in Delaware County, the property-poor Chester-Upland School District received nearly $6,875 per student from the state (more than 58% of its total revenue) while the property-rich Radnor Township School District received less than $1,698 per student (less than 11% of its total revenue).

In Allegheny County, the property-poor Duquesne City School District received more than $7,452 per student from the state (nearly 65% of its total revenue) while the property-rich Upper Saint Clair School District received less than $1,645 per student (less than 11% of its total revenue).

In Dauphin County, the property-poor Steelton-Highspire School District received more than $5,537 per student from the state (more than 54% of its total revenue) while the property-rich Derry Township School District received less than $1,213 per student (less than 13% of its total revenue).

These examples are not exceptions, but rather represent the general rule with regard to how the state redistributes school tax dollars across the Commonwealth. So don’t expect the public school lobby to embrace truly equitable funding, because then property-poor school districts will have to start paying their “fair share” by giving up their claims on money from citizens in wealthier school districts.

Instead of helping clarify the school funding debate in Pennsylvania, Quality Counts only assisted the public school special interests in further muddying the waters. The empirical data reveal that the state has not reduced its “share” of public school funding and that taxpayers already provide inequitably more state money for economically disadvantaged students. It is past time policymakers and public opinion shapers started discussing public policy based on the facts, rather than the myths propagated by those for whom only Quantity Counts.

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Matthew J. Brouillette is president at The Commonwealth Foundation, a free-market public policy research and educational institute based in Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.CommonwealthFoundation.org.