Report: Getting rid of racial bias in Pa. school funding will take more than money

    Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed education budget calls for increasing Pennsylvania spending on education by 7 percent — and it starts by dividing that projected $400 million among the state’s 500 districts.

    These increases, however, won’t change how existing funds are allocated.


    “It’s a relatively small amount being added onto a base that has these gigantic racial disparities built into it,” according to data scientist David Mosenkis, who analyzed Wolf’s proposed budget distribution in a new report for Philadelphians Organized to Witness, Empower and Rebuild — known as POWER, a faith-based social justice organization.

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    Those disparities are not new. POWER unpacked the underlying racial bias in Pennsylvania’s school funding in a similar report released last fall. That study found — when comparing districts at the same level of poverty — predominantly white school districts get more money per student than more racially diverse districts.

    In an interview with the Public School Notebook last year, Mosenkis explained how he found race to be a clear divider when looking at state funding to districts.

    “If you take basic funding as a simple measure and control for one factor such as poverty, you expect the points to be scattered,” he said. “You would expect that race or color of the students shouldn’t make more of a difference than, say, height or weight. But to see such a clear delineation based on race tells me that the current funding is biased based on this factor.”

    Mosenkis applied the same scatterplot method in the new report, which compares how schools with different levels of racial diversity would fare after Wolf’s proposed budget increase. Schools where more than 92 percent of the students are white are coded as yellow dots; schools with less than 92 percent are coded as brown dots. Ninety-two percent is the median value for school district diversity in Pennsylvania, so roughly half of the dots appear in each color.

    According to the new report, Wolf’s $400 million budget boost is distributed in a way that is “racially neutral” but — relative to the total amount of school funding — does not fix inequity.

    To see how much more per-pupil funding each district would receive under Wolf’s proposed budget, scroll over the data points in an interactive version of the graph above. 

     ‘The way we fund our schools is not the right way.’

    Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states without a funding formula to distribute funds based on student numbers and need.

    Instead, disbursement to the school districts is based  on a patchwork of one-time standards assembled under the “hold harmless” policy. Passed in 1991, “hold harmless” is a provision of the state’s school law guaranteeing no district will receive less money than it had before, even if its student population shrinks.

    According to Wolf’s spokesman, Jeff Sheridan, “The governor has acknowledged many times that the way we fund our schools is not the right way.”

    In the discussion around school funding, it’s not only how much but how it’s alotted that is important, according to the POWER report. So Wolf and others are looking to a state funding formula to correct historical inequality.

    “If you’re going to try to disburse money in a way that’s fair and equitable and doesn’t have these kind of biases,” said Mosenkis, “you need to divide up the whole pot in a fair way, not just a little piece of it.” The “whole pot” consists of the  more than $10 billion in current state education spending.

    Is a new funding formula the solution?

    Lawmakers are already working on the issue of funding allocation — although not specifically the racial disparity. The Basic Education Funding Commission, a bipartisan group, has been touring the state for input on what Pennsylvania’s funding formula should look like. The commission has until June to make its recommendations.

    The governor, who has three appointees to the 15-member commission, hopes to ensure more equity in school funding through the funding formula process, according to Sheridan. “[Wolf’s] trying to come up with a better way that would be achieved through a fair funding formula that is yet to be enacted because he’s working on it now.”

    What that formula will mean for “hold harmless,” and the districts now receiving money based on their 1990 enrollment figures, remains to be seen. Several legal challenges have targeted Pennsylvania’s current funding distribution, all of which the state courts have ruled are not “justiciable” or able to be resolved through litigation.

    The most recent case, dismissed by Commonwealth Court last week, is headed to Pennsylvania Supreme Court.

    Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters PA, said keeping funding consistent through “hold harmless” itself isn’t the problem. “‘Hold harmless’ is a function of inadequacy,” she said. “If every district is at its adequacy target, then ‘hold harmless’ isn’t an issue.”

    In other words, the policy is a way of ensuring fiscal security in times of budget scarcity, but would be less necessary if there were enough money to fund each district fully. 

    Existing funding inequality may have emerged through pieces of old funding formulas, which gave more money to small, rural districts, according to the Notebook.  

    But finding intent is beside the point, said Mosenkis. “The point isn’t to point fingers … the point is now that we’re aware of it, it’s incumbent on our elected officials to do something about it.”

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