Penn. school funding fight can proceed to trial

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court handed down an 86-page ruling on September 28 that will allow the courts to decide if the state’s school funding methods are inequitable and discriminatory to the point of being unconstitutional.


Fair Funding PA rally in Dilworth Park, Sept. 12, 2016 (Philadelphia City Council / Flickr CC)

The pictures of school funding in the different states are diverse indeed. But generally speaking, schools or independent school districts that run them get most of their money from local sources, typically raised in the form of taxes.

States come next, and they largely ensure that some minimal amount—generalized in state constitutions as being an “adequate” or “efficient” level of funding—is provided to the schools, an amount that is usually based on a formula that determines the minimum amount schools need per pupil.

Finally, the federal government sends less money to schools than either state or local governments do, and the federal dollars a school receives are based on entitlements: Title I for poor schools, Title III for English learners, Title IX for sexual equity, and so on.

The feds also provide money to the schools for certain programs, such as the school lunch program from the US Department of Agriculture.

When a school district has lots of expensive houses or high-earning businesses, the amount of funding from local sources is going to be high, simply because those property and business owners send large amounts to the government.

Compare this with rural districts where homes don’t bring in as much in property taxes and businesses stay away from the area, and thus don’t collect sales tax for the local schools, because not a lot of people who would spend money at those businesses live in the area.

In the case of districts that have a low property tax base, the state has to chip in a greater amount in order to ensure “adequate” funding, which still doesn’t make it equal to the per-pupil funding amounts that schools enjoy when the property or business tax base is higher.

Take, for example, Illinois A-C Central Community Unit School District 262, based in Ashland, near the Mississippi River. The district receives about 59 percent of its revenue from local taxes, 34 percent from the state, and about 7 percent from the feds. Contrast that with Lake Bluff Elementary School District 65 on Chicago’s North Shore. That district receives 95 percent of its revenue from local sources, 4 percent from the state, and a little more than 1 percent from the federal government.

Clearly, the local property tax base in Lake Bluff far exceeds that in Ashland, and the state doesn’t have to chip in as much on a percentage basis in Lake Bluff. But the dollar amount the state sends to Lake Bluff per pupil isn’t much lower than the amount of per-pupil dollars it sends to Ashland.

And with local, state, and federal money, the schools in Lake Bluff spend about $29,000 per student, compared to about $14,000 per student in Ashland.

Is that fair?

Should the state reduce the per-pupil amount to Lake Bluff based on creating more equity across the state? Should these adjustments be made, or will that be even more unfair on the part of the state? Keep in mind, if that happens, local jurisdictions may be inclined to game the system and reduce the level of funding provided to schools.

The question that plagues education advocates, not just in Illinois, is this: What can be done to make the system of education in the state, as required by the constitutions of most states, equitable and efficient?

The numbers in Illinois are bad, in terms of the gap in per-pupil funding between the richest and poorest districts in the state, but no state in the union has a wider gap than Pennsylvania. Now the courts are going to weigh in, as this long-debated case goes to trial. Any decision will be appealed for many years to come, but the eventual outcome will potentially affect other states.

One question people are asking is whether or not the courts should weigh in on educational policy or leave the decision to lawmakers. In New Jersey, the courts are entangled in decisions involving whether schools should be required to provide, say, pre-K for all children in the state, and everybody and his uncle is just suing everybody else.

“I believe we should continue to view the concept of an adequate education attainable via a thorough and efficient system as being a function of educational policy choices made by the Legislature and involving public policy concerns, which are properly the domain of legislative discretion,” wrote Pennsylvania Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas G Saylor, who was one of two dissenting voices in the current decision.

No one denies the right of the courts to weigh in on school funding policy. “Judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches,” the majority wrote.

I just question the wisdom of it, although funding should be as fair as it can be, given a strong reliance in Pennsylvania and many other states on local property and sales taxes.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.