Pennsylvanians Deserve the Truth on Education Spending
Pennsylvania’s Basic Education Funding Commission has begun holding hearings on how to remake the state’s public schools funding formula after a state court determined that the existing formula violates the state constitution. To make informed decisions, the commission, lawmakers, parents, and voters need accurate information. Unfortunately, misinformation about public education funding persists.
For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer recently published an interactive online article full of outdated information, inaccurate data, and misleading commentary about public school funding.
To start, the Inquirer cites funding levels from 2019 – four years on from our current budget debate. In its methodology (in small font at the bottom), the Inquirer admits using a partisan, special-interest-funded analysis. This analysis updated a flawed 2007 “costing out study,” which claimed that if school districts would only spend more, every child would succeed.
The Commonwealth Court, in its 786-page decision, was “not convinced” by these claims that school districts need billions in additional dollars. Understandably, the judges couldn’t get behind decades-old numbers pushed by special interests.
Even more curious is how the Inquirer seemingly pulled numbers out of thin air. The report implies – via a chart, rather than using raw numbers – that the Philadelphia School District received about $11,000 per student in local, state, and federal revenue.
In truth, it’s double that amount: the district received $22,308 per student in revenue in 2021–22, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Philadelphia’s per-student revenue runs about $5,000 above the national average.
And this isn’t just in Philadelphia; this above-average spending is occurring statewide. Pennsylvania school districts spent $21,263 per student in the 2021–22 school year.
Misinformation like this is a disservice to Pennsylvanians who deserve the truth about how their tax dollars are used to fund public education.
By contrast, the Commonwealth Foundation recently released an updated analysis of education funding trends in Pennsylvania, using actual data drawn directly from the PDE and the U.S. Census Bureau.
Despite claims to the contrary, Pennsylvania ranks among the highest-spending states – seventh nationwide. Moreover, revenues from state, local, and federal funds all exceed the national average.
Because Pennsylvania has virtually no limits on school property taxes, its local per-student funding is the furthest out of whack compared with other states. To be closer to the national norm, Pennsylvania wouldn’t need to increase state funding, which already exceeds the U.S. average, but instead cut and cap local taxes.
The reality is that Pennsylvania has raised state funding for public schools every year. Support of district schools is up 54% over the last decade, reaching nearly $15.5 billion in the as-yet- unfinished 2023–24 budget. And state lawmakers have approved nearly $3 billion in annual funding increases for public schools. These increases occurred despite a statewide decline in enrollment, down 7% since 2000.
Despite all the news stories about a “teacher shortage,” Pennsylvania suffers from a student shortage. Compared to twenty years ago, Pennsylvania public schools have 139,000 fewer students and 21,145 more employees.
Meanwhile, the average public school teacher salary – $75,000 – ranks 12th highest in the nation. From this average salary, $20,000 goes toward pension contributions that pay off debt stemming from past policy mistakes.
Of particular note in the education-funding discussion are the ever-increasing reserve funds that school districts hoard. Pennsylvania school districts have amassed nearly $6 billion in reserve funds, an amount that grows every year.
Special-interest groups that profit from public school spending will always claim that they need more money. But voters deserve to know the truth about per-student spending: Pennsylvania is among the highest-spending states, and that funding has consistently risen year after year.
Further, voters deserve to know that those funding increases have not led to better results; test scores have stagnated and declined.
Thus, when the Commonwealth Court ruled that the state’s funding system was unconstitutional, it didn’t order increases in funding. Instead, it focused on the rights of students, stating the goal that “every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed.”
Throwing more money at a broken system that is losing students and hoarding reserves does nothing to achieve that aim.
Only by empowering parents with educational opportunities and portable funding that follows students to the school that best fits their needs can we deliver equitable education for our kids.