Education jargon, explained

Fourth graders in a summer reading program at West Philadelphia High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Fourth graders in a summer reading program at West Philadelphia High School. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Too often we hear school officials, experts, advocates, and yes, even journalists throw around terms like “block grants” and “charter authorizer” with little explanation as to what these terms actually mean.

Twelfth in an occasional series of podcasts and web “explainers.” 

Too often we hear school officials, experts, advocates, and yes, even journalists throw around terms like “Block grants” and “charter authorizer” with little explanation as to what these terms actually mean. Important education funding terms and concepts get lost in translation.  Here we breakdown jargon and loaded concepts into a glossary of education funding terms.

Aid ratio:

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A measure of a school district’s wealth compared to a state average, and thus the district’s ability to support a school system. The formula includes both the personal income and property value a district has “behind” each student.

For example, in 2012-13, the Philadelphia School District had $97,959 in personal income and $183,266 in property value behind each student. Lower Merion, the wealthiest district in the area, had $823,967 in personal income and almost $1.4 million in property value for every student. Wealthier districts need less aid and have a lower aid ratio. 

The aid ratio is designed to assess how much to contribute to each district to make total spending more equitable. Today in Pennsylvania, however, it is factored into determining what the state will provide for transportation assistance and special education costs, but not for the biggest chunk of state aid, the basic education funding.

Basic education funding:

The major category of state school funding, covering students in regular K-12 classrooms.

At one time, Pennsylvania calculated it specifically for each district based on its actual enrollment, aid ratio, and local tax effort. But this is no longer the case. Instead, the total amount is determined each year by the General Assembly, based largely on what it got the year before.

Block grants:

The state provides Ready to Learn Block Grants as supplemental funding for school districts based on population, poverty, and the percentage of English language learners.

They offer some flexibility but must be targeted to certain educational initiatives such as preschool and full-day kindergarten, supplemental instruction for Keystone exams, or computer-based instruction.

They replaced a similar Accountability Block Grant program. For about a decade, the state has preferred these targeted grants to increases in basic education funding, which is unrestricted.

Charter authorizer:

A governmental agency with the power to approve the establishment of a charter school.

In Pennsylvania, this is the local district, although other states have granted this authority to universities or other entities or established statewide authorizing boards. This has also been proposed for Pennsylvania, but never approved by the General Assembly.

Hold harmless:

A provision added to Pennsylvania’s school code in 1991 requiring that no school district receive less state funding than the year before, even if it loses enrollment.

The starting point is based on the 1990 census. This provision is frequently criticized by school districts in fast-growing areas, which feel shortchanged when shrinking districts still receive steady funding or increases.

Public School Employees Retirement System (PSERS):

Separate from the State Employees Retirement system and more than twice as large, with some 589,000 members statewide. But according to the 2012 Keystone Pension Report of the state Budget Office, both are underfunded by more than 30 percent.

School code:

The Public School Code of 1949. It is the basic framework for all state education legislation — in effect, the public school system’s constitution.

School income tax:

A local tax levied in Philadelphia on unearned income, including dividends, interest, short-term capital gains, and rental income.

Special education funding:

In addition to the basic education funding, Pennsylvania gives supplemental state funding for students in special education programs. Funding used to be based on total enrollment and more recently factored in the number of students in special education, but not their degree of disability. Unlike basic education funding, the aid ratio is considered.

Stranded costs:

A key issue in the debate over funding charter schools. When a student transfers from the district to a charter school, the district does not save the full cost of his or her education. The district must still pay to maintain the building the student was in, for example, and for other expenses such as teacher salaries that are not immediately reduced. These are examples of “stranded costs.”

Transportation funding:

The third-largest category of state funding to assist local school districts. The aid ratio is also considered here.

Have any other school funding jargon you’d like to have explained and added to this glossary? Let us know in the comment section below, or email

About this series: Multiple Choices is a collaboration between Keystone Crossroads and the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, an independent, nonprofit source of education news. The project is funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation in Philadelphia.

In the Multiple Choices podcast, Keystone Crossroads senior education writer Kevin McCorry joins with Paul Socolar, publisher and editor of the Public School Notebook, and Notebook contributing editor Dale Mezzacappa to explain and explore the history, complexities and controversies of public education funding in Pennsylvania.

Look for new installments of Multiple Choices every week for the rest of the spring, as the General Assembly reviews Gov. Wolf’s ambitious school funding and tax plan.

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