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Following Pennsylvania's School Funding Trial

How Pennsylvania's Schools Are Funded

By Michael Lin

If a public school is funded mostly by its own community, a rich town or district will have more to spend on everything from teachers’ salaries to school supplies. Poor communities will have poorer schools. That’s exactly how Pennsylvania school-funding works. On March 10, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court heard closing arguments on a landmark trial regarding school funding in Pennsylvania, capping off a seven-year campaign to the Court and four months of testimony.

Plaintiffs–representing six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide organizations–argued that “the state has adopted an irrational and inequitable system of funding public education” that discriminates against students based on where they live and falls short of providing students with the adequate resources to meet state standards. Defense attorneys representing GOP state leaders retorted that the state has taken measures to distribute funding more equitably and questioned the link between funding and student outcomes.

A final ruling on this trial is not expected for a couple months, and the losing side is likely to appeal to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court.

The contrived developments of this trial lead one to ask: how did this all come about?

Background on School Funding in Pennsylvania

Schools across the United States are funded by a combination of local, state, and federal government funds. In Pennsylvania, most of the school-funding policy can be found in the annual state budget adopted by the General Assembly every year before the start of the fiscal year on July 1st. Negotiations between and among the Governor’s office, state agencies, and the General Assembly occur all throughout the budget proposal and approval process.

The Pennsylvania Board of Education annually publishes summary-level data on revenue, expenditures, and tax information. According to the most recently available data, which covers year 2019 to 2020, the average percentages of total school revenue coming from local, state, and federal funds across the state’s districts was 62%, 31%, and 4%, respectively. Evidently, most of the school funding is supported by local funds, typically from property taxes. Equitable education funding advocates argue that this structure of funding is what contributes to the systematic marginalization of poorer communities.

A few key issue areas emerge from the discussion of school funding: state share, adequacy, and equity.

  • In the 1960s, Pennsylvania law required that the state share must be at least 50 percent of school funding; however, by the 1980s, Pennsylvania law eliminated any specific figure of state share. Consequently, state share of school funding has steadily declined since. With a current state share of 31%, much of the burden of school funding is placed on local taxpayers.

  • Adequacy and equity are exactly the issues contested in Pennsylvania’s school funding trial. How much funding is required for students to meet state standards? How should state funds be allocated across all the districts in the state? What kind of factors and how much weight should they hold in determining allocation?

While we are still months away from the conclusion of the trial, the outcome will certainly leave lasting impacts on the future of school funding in Pennsylvania. Follow along with this blog series to stay on top of what you need to know before the landmark decision is made.

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