A Smarter Way to Fund Students

Note: This commentary was originally published at LancasterOnline.

Imagine writing a large check for a new car and finding out a year later that it fails safety tests, won’t pass inspection, and needs thousands in repairs. You’d probably be demanding answers from the dealership. If the only solution they offered was the exact same car but for more money—would you take it?

That’s essentially the deal Pennsylvanians are being offered on public education—disappointing results from a broken system that they’re told only more money can fix.

The truth is, Pennsylvania’s education system is not underfunded, but it certainly is broken and irrational. Taxpayers and students deserve better.

As a whole, the commonwealth’s public education system is nothing if not unsatisfactory. According to The Nation’s Report Card, more than half of Pennsylvania students are not proficient in reading and math. Academic performance is markedly worse in some of the state’s largest school districts. Even more troubling is that many schools are plagued by violence and unsafe classrooms.

If you think these poor results are caused by a lack of funding, think again. Pennsylvania spent a record $27 billion on education during the last fiscal year. Spending per pupil is over $14,600, which ranks among the top 12 states in the country and exceeds the national average by nearly $3,000.

Pennsylvania’s schools are certainly not starved for resources, yet there is a belief among some that doubling down with additional tax dollars will improve educational outcomes. A recent lawsuit joined by six school districts across the state alleges that top state officials have failed to uphold their constitutional obligation to provide an adequate education for all students.

How can it possibly be true that a $27 billion system provides inadequate resources for any of its students? Poorly designed public policy is squarely to blame.

Look no further than Pennsylvania’s “hold harmless” provision, which is at the root of education funding inequity. Hold harmless—a relic of the early 1990s—mandates that each school district receive at least as much in state education dollars as it received the year before.

This approach may sound appealing in theory, but it is problematic in practice. Hold harmless funding levels are guaranteed to school districts regardless of changes in enrollment. This means that districts with sharply declining enrollment keep funding for students who have moved to other areas, and rapidly growing districts don’t get much additional funding.

Consider these striking inequalities. In 2012-13, 25 districts received more than $10,000 of state aid per student, while 50 districts received less than $3,000 per student.

Fortunately, the state’s Basic Education Funding Commission presents an opportunity to correct this injustice by transitioning away from hold harmless in favor of a weighted student funding (WSF) model.

WSF distributes education dollars fairly and with greater transparency by providing each district with per-pupil funding customized to the specific characteristics of the district’s student population.

What this approach acknowledges is really just commonsense: Some students need more attention and resources than others.

For example, children who are economically disadvantaged or English language learners would receive more funding. Lawmakers determine which student characteristics are weighted, as well as the how much additional funding follows the child. The guiding principles of WSF are far more responsive to the actual needs of a student body than the status quo.

The Funding Commission, which will continue to hold hearings over the next several months, should not assume that increased education spending will trigger classroom improvement. Indeed, a report funded by the National Science Foundation found a tenuous relationship between spending and academic achievement in Pennsylvania.

A prime example of the disconnect between spending and outcomes is in the School District of Philadelphia, where charter schools outperform district-run schools despite receiving less funding per-pupil.

Hardworking families, property owners, and small businesses deserve a stronger return on their investment in education. We can and must construct a more efficient and effective system to fund a first-class education for all of Pennsylvania’s students.

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James Paul is a senior policy analyst for the Commonwealth Foundation (CommonwealthFoundation.org), Pennsylvania’s free market think tank.