November 8, 2021

Deborah Gordon Klehr: Why Pennsylvania’s school funding system is on trial

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This Thursday, a major trial in Pennsylvania will begin, addressing the state’s major issues with public education funding. At Lancaster Online, the executive director of the Education Law Center addresses why this lawsuit is important.

Clearly, the state Legislature has failed to fulfill its duties under the education and equal protection provisions of Pennsylvania’s constitution. The current system is not “thorough” or “efficient” and does not provide a quality education for children in low-wealth districts.

The gross disparities between districts are irrational and unjustifiable.

The General Assembly has at times acknowledged that Pennsylvania has a school funding problem. In 2016, legislators adopted a funding formula that distributes “new” funding to school districts based on objective factors, such as student enrollment, poverty levels, school district wealth and capacity to raise local revenues. This year, state lawmakers funded a modest “Level Up” supplement for the state’s 100 most under-resourced districts.

But total state aid is still woefully insufficient. And because of a “hold harmless” provision in the state’s funding system, ensuring that no district can get less state aid than in 2014-15, 86% of total funding is distributed without regard to current enrollment or need.

The profoundly inadequate level of state funding and the flaws in the system for distributing it have created inequities between school districts that are too extreme to ignore.

According to the analysis by Kelly, 428 of the 500 school districts in Pennsylvania have an “adequacy gap” — the yawning gulf between the funds they can raise and the state’s own benchmark for what they need to educate students to state standards.

The total funding shortfall is at least $4.6 billion statewide. Two dozen districts, including Columbia Borough, have shortfalls exceeding $5,000 per student. Lancaster is not far behind at $4,510. Reading has the largest gap: $8,592 per student.

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