The Disparity within Pennsylvania’s Education System

Penn Wood High School, Shot by Ellie Davis

Penn Wood High School, Shot by Ellie Davis

Ellie Davis

Every day, Radnor Township students benefit from almost $100 million spent annually by our district to give us the best possible education. No cost is spared to ensure that we, as high school students, have all the educational opportunities we could hope for: recent textbooks, a multitude of electives and Advanced Placement courses, learning support, stellar sports facilities, an abundance of teachers, and Surface Gos that we cannot seem to stop complaining about. We forget to appreciate many of these luxuries out of lack of awareness for our neighboring districts’ struggles. Because of the relatively high value of homes in the district, resulting in higher revenue from property taxes, Radnor schools are able to maintain spending. Students in districts with lower property values, such as William Penn School District, cannot enjoy such luxuries.  

As Jane Harbert, Superintendent of the William Penn School District, expressed in an interview, due to limited funding, the students are missing out on many educational opportunities that she would like to see available to them. At the elementary level, while Radnor has a student-to-teacher ratio of about one to fourteen, at William Penn, as Harbert stated, “I have about thirty students in a classroom,” without any teaching assistants. Two of Radnor’s facilities were built after the turn of the century, whereas Harbert’s youngest school “was built back in 1970,” and there is “no way that [they] could ever build a new facility at this moment.” Looking at the RHS program of studies, most of us at some point have been overwhelmed by the wide range of options for electives, a feeling that William Penn Students are not lucky enough to experience; their only options for electives are world language, music, physical education, and art. 

Following billion dollar state budget cuts in 2011 and the election of Governor Corbett, already struggling school districts took another hit, and William Penn had to make sacrifices. One such sacrifice was firing half of the guidance counselors for elementary schools, leaving each remaining counselor to serve two of the eight schools. At the high school level, the cut in funding was so devastating that, due to lack of teaching staff, students went from having seven instructional blocks daily to only six: a change that forced the district to reduce the number of credits needed to graduate, as there simply was not enough time in the day for students to meet the requirements. 

Throughout the interview, Harbert’s gentle voice had a tone of sympathy for her students, because she knows they deserve better. She also mentioned multiple times that her staff and teachers are always doing their best to make up for the lack of funding: “Our staff really puts that effort forth so that our kids really don’t know what they’re lacking.” But despite the teachers’ passion for bettering the education of William Penn Students, as Harbert said, “it would be great if we could have that extra $21 million that we should get every year so that we wouldn’t have to be worrying about whether our heat is going to go on.”

Penn Wood High School, Shot by Ellie Davis

To witness the disparities between Radnor and William Penn for myself, I visited one of the district’s high schools, Penn Wood Green Campus, with School Board President Jennifer Hoff. Though the discrepancies were clear, nothing I saw was horrifying: it was a regular school with students who were there to learn. As Hoff said, “it’s a normal school, people demonize us because of poverty.” Walking through the library, which is about a third of the size of Radnor’s, she explained how they haven’t been able to keep a permanent librarian in years. The art room, where students were focused on their ceramic projects, was beautifully decorated with paintings and sculptures from floor to ceiling. After I complimented a mobile — a sculpture using a repurposed cello and trombone — Ms. Hoff commented that “we haven’t had a string program in years. You have an art room, it probably looks better than this, but we are still doing art.”

The funding disparities were clearest when I considered the things that I could not observe. For one, there is no track. Instead, the track team often trains on the second floor of the school, though multiple current track and field Olympians are Penn Wood Alumni. The football team struggles, too, as other teams refuse to play on their field because of the muddy conditions. An additional limiting factor is that there is no after school sports bus, leaving students without other transportation options unable to participate in athletics. 

Despite their disadvantages, Hoff holds the utmost pride in her students and school. In the hour we spent at the school, most students greeted her by name and many hugged her. Though, an equal number of teachers mentioned repair requests that had gone unanswered. Like Harbert, Hoff wondered what the students would be capable of if they had more. She asked, “would that change [student’s] attitudes, would that change beliefs in themselves?” 

I had the pleasure of speaking to one of the many students that Hoff is so proud of, Lowoe Samolu, who is a senior this year. When I asked her about the student body’s awareness of the underfunding, she responded “we don’t have as much as the other schools. We can see that. We make the best of what we have. Underfunded stigma doesn’t overshadow us. After this, most of us are still college-bound.” Over the past few years, William Penn has taken students to Harrisburg to talk to lawmakers about the funding situation, but as Hoff said, “It shouldn’t be their water to carry.” 

The lack of resources is not a problem specific to William Penn School District — by the 2020-2021 school year, a projected sixty percent of school districts will have more expenditures than money to pay for them. Pennsylvania is the worst state in the country when it comes to school funding inequity. A study from the Washington Post found that, as of 2015, there was a 33% difference in per-pupil funding between the best and worst Pennsylvania districts — the largest percentage difference in the country by double second place, which has a per-pupil difference of 15%.

The disparity is only growing. During the 2012-13 school year, a wealthy district could afford to spend about $3,058 more per pupil than a district on the lower end of the scale, according to the Keystone Research Center. By the 2016-17 school year, this figure had risen to $3,778. Looking at the extremes, the wealthiest districts are paying upwards of $17,000 to educate each student annually, whereas other district can only afford to pay around $6,000. 

Township boundaries also affect funding, as districts that include larger businesses reap the benefits from their taxes. For example, last year Pottstown lost $1 million of annual tax revenue when a for-profit hospital was sold. William Penn has been at a disadvantage in this regard for years, as when the township lines were drawn, most nearby big businesses were put in surrounding districts. As Harbert explained, “we have no big businesses to get money from. We had two Giants in our school district, but both of those were cut out and put into Upper Darby.” 

 Over the past five years, William Penn School district has experienced an average budget shortfall of 1.7%. For perspective, Radnor Township has had an average shortfall of 0.27%. This number might lead one to believe that Radnor is less prosperous than it is. The reality is that over the past five years, Radnor has not been taking measures that compare to William Penn when it comes to cutting costs. Radnor has a 0.27% shortfall while making minimal compromises. Whereas William Penn has a 1.7% shortfall despite making significant compromises. Districts surrounding Radnor —  Lower Merion, Marple Newtown, and Tredyffrin Easttown — all have a surplus of 1% to 2%, with the greatest surplus out of all districts nearing 3%. On the other end of the spectrum, the districts with the greatest shortfalls similarly approach 3% — an amount that may sound minor until one considers that 3% in Radnor, a relatively small district, amounts to $3 million. 

  The history of how Pennsylvania evolved to be the state with the worst school funding equity involves a long history of power imbalances in Harrisburg. Today, the problem boils down to the fact that Pennsylvania puts too much pressure on local taxes to fund schools. In 2017, the state contributed 37% of funding — the fifth-lowest share in the nation — with local districts generating the remaining 63%. This system forces local communities to bear the burden of generating enough money through property taxes to keep their schools running, meaning the quality of a student’s education is determined by the wealth of their district. In wealthy suburbs like Radnor, where enough money can easily be generated with relatively low tax rates, this is not a problem. But if a district does not have high-value properties to draw taxes from, they are out of luck and are forced to drive up property tax rates to keep their schools open.  

Philadelphia, Upper Darby, and Oxford Area are three school districts that can only generate about half as much per-pupil funding as Lower Merion, despite having significantly higher tax rates. Residents of Pottstown must pay property taxes three times higher than that of Upper Merion and Montgomery townships. The story in William Penn is no different: as Harbert shared “Raising taxes 2% in Radnor would raise millions of dollars. We only generate about $800,000 where [other townships] would generate $1 to $2 million from the same 2%.”

In 2014, three years into Governor Corbett’s term, William Penn School District chose to stop compromising its students’ education at the will of government funding and decided to take on the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit fighting for fair funding in Pennsylvania school districts. “We are fighting this,” said Mrs. Harbert. “We deserve more than we have.”

Penn Wood High School, Shot by Ellie Davis

 Originally brought against the state with the help of The Public Interest Law Center, other plaintiffs now include five other financially struggling school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. The Public Interest Law Center notes that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has failed to keep its promises in the state constitution of providing students with a “thorough and efficient system of public education,” and that it has “adopted an irrational and inequitable school financing arrangement.” The need for a lawsuit is evident in the fact that their six plaintiff districts are “unable to provide students with the basic elements of an adequate education, such as appropriate class sizes, sufficient experienced and effective teachers, up-to-date books and technology, adequate course offerings, sufficient administrative staff, academic remediation, counseling and behavioral health services, and suitable facilities necessary to prepare students to meet state proficiency standards.” In an interview, Michael Churchill, one of the lawyers on the case at the Law Center, and a decades-long advocate for education, asked, “How do we tolerate spending literally three times as much public money on one child’s education preparing him or her for an adult future as we do on another child?” 

The case was first filed in the Commonwealth Court against the Department of Education, Senator Scarnati, Representative Turzai, Governor Corbett, the Pennsylvania Board of Education, and Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresqu. After being denied a hearing, with the claim that the courts cannot be involved in issues of school funding, the plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, which ordered the Commonwealth Court to hear the case. But, they ran into problems again when Senator Scarnati, President pro tempore of the Pennsylvania Senate, claimed the case was irrelevant after the adoption of a Fair Funding Formula in 2016. 

In an attempt to give more aid to struggling districts, in 2016, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed the Fair Funding Formula. It aims to give more money to schools that struggle to raise local funds and have more special needs students, as well as taking into account increasing enrolment — a change one would think would eliminate the need for the lawsuit. But the problem remains, as only funds that are added to the budget for education since 2016 are allowed to be distributed according to the formula: a portion that only amounts to about 11% of the total state education budget. Obviously, this was not the change struggling schools were looking for.

The problem is more complicated than simply putting a bigger portion of the budget through the formula. If the Fair Funding Formula were applied to funds already in place, then money would have to be taken away from districts. And, right now, many powerful lawmakers represent districts that stand to lose a lot of money if all funding were run through the formula. For example, David Argall, representative of Schuylkill County, where eleven out of the twelve districts would lose money under the formula, has no reason to want more money to be pushed through the formula. If all of the money in the education budget were to be put through the formula, an estimated 300 of 500 districts would lose money. Governor Wolf recently received major pushback after making a statement which some interpreted to mean he would be willing to put all funding through the formula. But lawmakers are not the only thing getting in the way of Fair-Formula-based school funding. 

In 1986, Pennsylvania adopted the Hold Harmless agreement, which in essence means that once a school district is receiving a certain amount of funding, the state is required to at least meet that level of funding in subsequent years. The motivation behind the agreement was to help rural schools whose enrollment was declining by preventing them from losing money. These are the districts that stand to lose the most if the Fair Funding Formula is fully adopted, as it takes enrollment into account. These districts, however, are still struggling to function due to a lack of resources. “The people who are getting more than their share, according to the formula, are still badly underfunded,” said Churchill, “the question is should you take money away from needy districts when the better solution is to give extra money?” The lawyers running the case are not looking to take money away from any districts — the general consensus is that the Hold Harmless agreement should be kept in place. Instead, in a perfect world, all districts would continue to at least get what money they are already receiving in addition to more money being added to the school funding budget and put through the formula — solving the problems of both inadequacy and inequity. 

This outcome, though it would be his wish, is not what Churchill predicts. Although he predicts that the judges “are not going to ask for redistribution,” he commented that “it is something the court could do.” The incentive for the legislature to deal with the equity problem rather than the adequacy problem is simple: it’s less expensive. The state would be able to shuffle around money to make the system more equal without addressing the lack of resources. Churchill expects “the court to leave it to the legislature. The legislature could decide to redistribute, that would take care of the equity problem. It doesn’t cost as much and doesn’t put as much pressure on the legislature.” 

As the case stands now, after the court dismissed Scarnati’s claims of mootness after the Fair Funding formula was implemented, the landmark trial is scheduled for the summer of 2020. Just how much are they asking for? For all schools to be sufficiently funded, a 2015 report form the Public Interest Law Center specifies that between $3.036 and $4.073 billion more is needed. The lower estimate is based on the average cost of education in Pennsylvania, and the higher one is based on the average cost of education in districts whose students have average or above-average PSSA scores. Though this report is nearly three years old, funding increases have hardly reached a fraction of what the Law Center estimates is needed. From the 2016-2017  school year, when the report was issued, to the 2018-2019 school year, state funding has increased only around $400 million. In the most recent budget, there was a $255 million increase, much less than what the governor initially asked for. Currently, the state puts $8.3 billion towards public K-12 education. “We are lowest in the country in state support because our legislature is not willing to raise the money to do the job that is necessary because schools are expensive,” said Churchill. 

 In February of this year, the Radnor School Board passed a resolution in response to a campaign by PA Schools Work. For years, this organization has been working to encourage Governor Wolf and the general assembly to prioritize education in the budget. The resolution, proposed by the Government Relations/Communications Committee, urges the state to put more funding into education through the fair funding formula while stressing that no district should receive less funding than it currently does. The resolution is not binding in any way, but it shows that Radnor has an interest in the education of all Pennsylvania students. Multiple districts on the Main Line signed similar resolutions, giving encouragement to William Penn and the other plaintiffs in the case to continue in their efforts. “We are not going to stand alone anymore,” said Hoff “ Unless we fight together we won’t succeed.”

The resolution passed eight to one, with Patricia Booker as the only dissenting opinion. As reported in Main Line Media News, Booker opposed the resolution because increases to the state education budget would be channeled through the fair funding formula: “I have not seen fundamental changes sufficiently to it that I would say that Radnor is not going to be harmed by it… and the impact to our community, in my opinion, is great. And I am fundamentally opposed.” Other members disagreed with her claim, citing the fact that the fair funding formula applies only to a fraction of the state education budget, and with the Hold Harmless Policy in place, Radnor is guaranteed to receive the same amount of funding as we have in previous years. Also, because Radnor’s enrollment has increased, our district will gain more from the formula than others whose enrollment is declining. Yet, Booker affirmed that “Unless they’ve changed the fair funding formula significantly, I can’t support it.”

In this decision, Booker acted on what she believed to be the best interest of her district, claiming that the formula would drive money away from Radnor. With a voter base in Radnor, this is an understandable choice. This is a hard decision that most board members have to face: do they act purely in the interest of their district, or keep the commonwealth in mind? In an interview, Amy Goldman, co-chair of The Government Relations and Communications Committee, acknowledged that that she firmly believes that all PA school districts should have the funding they need, but she also knows how valuable every state dollar is to Radnor’s schools. 

As co-chair of the Delaware County School Board Legislative Council, Goldman and her fellow Council members have plans to further advocate for adequate statewide school funding. Their main agenda item for this year is to hold the federal government accountable for their original commitment of funding the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. With these efforts, Goldman is acting upon her belief that “as far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more important than providing a meaningful educational experience for each and every child. We all benefit as a society the more educated our youngest members are.”

  There is more than a lawsuit at stake in giving all Pennsylvania students a quality education — everyone, even those in wealthy districts, stands to lose if the current system continues. According to a 2015 study by the Rand Corporation, had the socio-economic gaps in Pennsylvania school’s achievement tests been eliminated, the Pennsylvania GDP growth would have been $12 to $27 billion more from 2003 to 2013. As Michael Churchill stressed, “It hurts us all when we get so callous as to not be concerned about whether the rest of our fellow citizens are educated enough to participate in the economy.” The education system cannot be called successful if it works in a way that allows for islands of prosperity in a sea of deprivation. We call ourselves a Commonwealth for a reason, and we will not be honoring this title until Pennsylvania can truthfully say that each student, regardless of their zip code, is equally receiving a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”