Spoiler: it has everything to do with the state ignoring enrollment changes for 25 years
Although Pennsylvania has adopted a new school funding formula, the state’s distribution of dollars still largely disregards the actual needs of students.
When dividing its largest pot of education cash, Pennsylvania provides the most funding (per pupil) to districts where enrollment has steeply declined over the past 25 years.
Of the top 25 districts in terms of per-pupil state funding, all but one has seen enrollment drop since 1991, when the state implemented a “hold harmless” policy.
Under that rule, the state stopped counting actual students when deciding how to allocate dollars. So districts that shrank did not see corresponding decreases in state aid, and, therefore, per-pupil funding increased.
Each of the top five districts by state per-pupil funding have seen enrollment drops of at least 30 percent.
As the interactive map above shows, many of the districts that receive the most per-pupil funding from the state are clustered in the rural western and central parts of the commonwealth — where population declines have been steep.
The map is color graded by per pupil funding from the state’s main public school budget line, the basic education subsidy — which this year totalled $5.68 billion.
In addition to the dollars noted above, districts receive other monies from the state, as well as from local and federal sources.
These calculations are based on a Keystone Crossroads’ analysis of Pennsylvania Department of Education enrollment data along with 2015-16 school budget data.
The current year budget numbers include the small fraction of cash that went through the state’s new student-weighted funding formula, which lawmakers plan to use only for new increases in aid.
So even after implementing a formula, more than 97 percent of the basic education pot is guided by “hold harmless.”
As the interactive graph below shows, there continues to be a stark correlation between per-pupil state funding and enrollment changes since 1991.
Want high per-pupil state funding and low property taxes? Go west.
By not counting actual enrollment, the state has also had a major effect on local tax burden.
“Hold harmless” has allowed many districts to ask comparatively less in local school taxes from residents.
Of the 100 districts that receive the most per-pupil funding from the state, the overwhelming majority have residents who spend below the state average when it comes to the share of personal income that goes to local property taxes for schools.
This includes six districts in the top half of median household income in the state: South Side, Avella, Western Beaver, Iroquois, Marion Center and Northwest.
The tax burden figures are taken from a 2014 Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center study of state data.
Conversely, the districts where enrollment has grown have not seen requisite increases in state aid, and local tax burden has risen.
Many of the districts that grew since 1991 are located in pockets of suburban wealth where local tax capacity is high.
But some districts have fared especially bad in this deal. Of the 100 districts that receive the least state aid per pupil, three pay above the state average of personal income towards school taxes while falling in the bottom half of median household wealth rankings.
This is the case for State College (which grew 20 percent), Hanover Public (which grew 19 percent), and Loyalsock Township (which grew 15 percent).
The “hold harmless” policy has also negatively impacted some of the state’s most distressed districts, where enrollment has grown and student needs are immense.
Based on the new formula, the state recognizes that York, Reading, Allentown, Philadelphia, Erie, Carbondale, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Lebanon, and Shenandoah Valley face among the greatest challenges in the commonwealth.
But none of these districts are in the top 25 by per pupil state funding.
That’s partly because each of these districts has grown since 1991, without receiving corresponding increases in state dollars.
And it’s partly due to the fact that, for the bulk of state aid, the commonwealth does not systematically acknowledge the burdens districts face based on student poverty, language fluency, and other factors.
In essence, state policy continues to dictate that students in South Side SD (west of Pittsburgh), where median income is more than $65,000, get significantly more per-pupil aid than in Reading, where median income is less than $27,000.
Philadelphia receives less money per pupil from the state than 151 districts. Erie receives less than 198 districts.
A political impossibility?
If the entire basic education pot were divided fairly according to the new student-weighted formula, the current order would be vastly disrupted.
A redistribution would occur where $1.1 billion dollars would be taken from 350 districts and given to the other 150 districts.
This is widely considered politically impossible for a few reasons.
Many of the most powerful lawmakers in Harrisburg represent districts that would be on the losing end of this prospect, including Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman R, Centre, Senate Minority Leader Jay Costa, D-Allegheny, House Majority Leader Dave Reed, R-Indiana, and House Minority Leader Frank Dermody, D-Allegheny.
Scarnati’s districts — which have seen some of the steepest percentage enrollment declines since 1991 — would be especially devastated. All 27 would lose money, and most of them would see cuts of more than $2,000 per pupil.
Five of those districts are currently in the top 15 of per-pupil state funding.
Statewide education advocates are also not clamoring for the redistribution.
The Campaign for Fair Education Funding, a coalition of more than 50 advocacy groups, says all districts need more funds in order to ensure that students can meet the state’s academic benchmarks in the midst of sharply rising fixed expenses.
The advocates say current inequities will subside over time by dramatically increasing the amount of new dollars going through the formula. They’re calling for the state to increase funding by $400 million annually for 8 years.
Gov. Tom Wolf says that’s not politically possible. After a historically long budget battle last year, the state boosted total education spending by $245 million.
As a comparison to the map above, the map below shows how the new formula dictates per-pupil funding, which was used to disperse less than 3 percent of the total.
On this map, the highest per-pupil rates are in the districts that face the greatest challenges.