School Funding Myths Debunked

Note: This commentary was originally published at PennLive.

Are Pennsylvania’s public schools underfunded?

That’s been the central question in Pennsylvania politics for a half-dozen years. But from Gov. Tom Corbett’s first budget to Gov. Tom Wolf’s election—and since—myths have dominated the debate.

During his campaign, Wolf ran on the myth that his predecessor “cut $1 billion” from public schools. The reality, however, is federal funding always known to be temporary expired. Those funds were never designed to be included in the permanent education budget.

Late last year, Wolf claimed the legislature cut $95 million from education, when lawmakers actually voted to increase funding by $400 million.

Most recently, the governor threatened that 23,000 teachers will be laid off unless his budget is enacted. PolitiFact PA rated this claim “mostly false.”

But what about the big question: Are we underfunding public education?

The answer is simple: No. Any suggestion to the contrary belies the facts.

How can I be so confident? Both the federal government and the nation’s largest teachers’ union agree.

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES)—a division of the U.S. Department of Education—ranks Pennsylvania’s per-student revenue 10th in the nation. Schools in the commonwealth receive $15,500 per student, roughly $3,400 more than the national average.

The National Education Association—a nationwide teachers’ union and a persistent advocate for increased education spending—goes even further, ranking Pennsylvania 6th in the nation in per-pupil revenue in 2014. 

How does ranking in the top 20 percent—or higher—constitute a funding “crisis”?

Some say the problem is Pennsylvania’s state taxpayers don’t adequately support public schools, leaving local taxpayers on the hook.

While local school revenue is notably high (6th in the nation), state revenue per student also exceeds the national average—ranking 24th-highest in the country, according to NCES.

Why, then, does Gov. Wolf repeatedly claim Pennsylvania ranks 45th in state support of public schools? This rhetorical sleight-of-hand refers to education spending in percentages, not dollars.

Would you rather have 50 percent of a dime or 36 percent of a dollar? Right now, state taxpayers provide the latter, paying more than a third of a total figure that significantly exceeds the national average.

You’ve probably heard about Pennsylvania’s largest-in-the-nation funding gap between wealthy and poor districts. Isn’t that reason enough to boost funding? While the discrepancies in district spending are higher in Pennsylvania than in other states, there is more to the story.

The NCES recently organized each state’s school districts into four quartiles of family income. In each quartile—even among high-poverty districts—Pennsylvania exceeds the national average in spending per student. The discrepancy arises only because some affluent Pennsylvania districts raise enormous levels of local taxes to fund their schools.

Clearly, funding isn’t the problem. That does not mean change isn’t needed to ensure money meant for education actually supports education.

The current method for distributing school funding is too rigid and fails to account for enrollment changes or students’ unique learning needs. If we want to get dollars to students who need them, a new funding formula—like what a bipartisan commission proposed last year—is critical.

Last summer, Wolf vetoed a budget plan that would have enacted the formula.

What’s more, each year, skyrocketing pension payments consume a growing chunk of education spending. Ask any school board member the biggest cost driver in education, and they’ll point to pensions without batting an eye.

Unfortunately, Wolf vetoed a pension reform bill that would have helped control these costs in the future.

Still another way to make sure funding reaches students is through school choice, funded by tax credit scholarship programs. Sadly, Wolf froze these programs until the last possible second in 2015, which threatened many schools’ very existence. And Wolf continues to be a staunch opponent of choice, targeting public charter and cyber schools for funding cuts.

Here’s the upshot: The next time you hear claims that the commonwealth underfunds education, look beyond the rhetoric to the facts.

Can Pennsylvania do better when it comes to educating our children? Absolutely. But playing “myths for money” will never lead to real solutions for families and students.

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