By Evan Brandt
People objecting to Pennsylvania’s status as the state with the widest gap between funding for rich and poor school districts have argued that a ZIP code all too often determines the quality of a student’s education.
Apparently, the color of a student’s skin matters even more.
New research has found that the less white a district’s students are, the more unfair the funding gap in state basic education dollars.
The discovery was made by two separate fair funding advocacy groups as they began applying Pennsylvania’s new “fair funding formula” to the finances of the state’s 500 school districts.
Because the state is putting only 6 percent of its total education funding through the formula, researchers at the Education Law Center and POWER (Philadelphia Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild) wanted to see what funding would look like for poorer districts if all the state’s education funding were distributed using the formula.
As expected, they found that applying the formula to all state funding would significantly change the education dynamic in Pennsylvania for poorer districts, boosting state aid and, consequently, opportunity for students who generally begin school further down the learning curve than their wealthier peers.
But they also found that while poverty is certainly a factor statewide in determining how much per student aid a school district gets, it turns out to be less of a predictor than race.
David Mosenkis, a data researcher and volunteer who put together one of the studies last year for POWER, along with an explanatory video, was among the first to see the connection and said what the data show “is horrifying.”
POWER is a Philadelphia faith-based advocacy group that “seeks to address the fact that it is the poor, communities of color and working families of all kinds who suffer the brunt of declining opportunities and dysfunctional systems.”
It is affiliated with the PICO National Network, “a national network of faith-based community organizations working to create innovative solutions to problems facing urban, suburban and rural communities.”
Mosenkis took Pennsylvania’s new fair funding formula — which takes into account things like the relative wealth of the district, its population, cost of living, number of special education students, its local tax load and more — and applied it to all basic education funding for each district.
Using that result as a baseline for each district’s “fair share,” Mosenkis then looked at various factors, primarily wealth and race, to see which districts were getting more than their fair share, and which were getting less.
The results painted a startling picture of discrimination.
Not only were poorer districts getting less than their fair share, the less white a poor district was, the worse the inequity.
“On average, the whitest districts gets thousands of dollars more than their fair share for each student, while the least white districts get thousands less for each student than their fair share,” he wrote.
“The results did surprise me,” Mosenkis told Digital First Media. “I expected to see poverty as a factor and, because of demographics, a similar result for racial factors. But even holding poverty as a constant, the whiter the school district, the higher the funding.”
Those conclusions were also reached by a study on school funding by the Education Law Center titled “Money Matters in Education Justice” and released last month.
The Education Law Center is a nonpartisan legal advocacy organization whose mission is “to ensure access to a quality public education for all children in Pennsylvania.” Its board members include representatives of businesses like GlaxoSmithKline and Aramark, as well as the Temple University School of Law and Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
“Our own analysis demonstrates that Pennsylvania school districts with above-average populations of students of color receive less state aid per pupil than districts with above-average white populations, even when both districts have similar levels of poverty,” the report’s authors wrote.
The Education Law Center study found that the 50 Pennsylvania districts with the most white students (an average of 99 percent white) receive $10,174.69 per student in state aid.
But the 50 districts with the least white student population (an average 38 percent white) receive $7,270.98 per student in state aid — a gap of $2,904 less per student for less white districts.
“Poor communities of color thus face several layers of inequity as a result of Pennsylvania’s school funding system,” according to the Education Law Center report. “They shoulder the highest local tax burden and yet still receive less state aid per student than similarly situated, whiter districts.”
In fact, the racial bias is so endemic to Pennsylvania’s education funding system that Mosenkis broke it down in the POWER study to the point that he can demonstrate that for every 10 percent increase in the white portion of the population, a district gets $447 more per student on average.
Mosenkis demonstrated the phenomenon by doing a specific comparison at the request of Digital First Media, between school districts in Pottstown and Mahanoy City in Schuylkill County.
Both have similar poverty levels and, according to the fair funding formula, both should be getting about the same amount of basic education funding aid — between $5,550 and $5,750 per student.
But when you look at actual state aid per student, Mahanoy is getting $6,913 per student — $1,156 more than its fair share, according to the formula.
And Pottstown is getting $3,173 per student — $2,361 less than its fair share. That’s a $3,517 gap per student between the two districts.
The only significant statistical difference between the two districts is Mahanoy City is 84.5 percent white, while Pottstown is 39 percent white.
That puts this comparison right in line with Mosenkis’ findings.
“The 20 percent of students in the whitest districts receive $1,934 per student more than their fair share of funding; and the 20 percent of students in the least-white districts receive $1,912 less per student than their fair share,” Mosenkis wrote.
That adds up to a gap of $3,486 per student in state funding between the whitest and least white districts in Pennsylvania and puts Pottstown on the losing end of this funding inequity.
“This absolutely angers me,” said Stephen Rodriguez, acting superintendent for Pottstown schools. “It angers me for what opportunities it is robbing from our students and it angers me for the economic burden it is putting on this community.”
A recent study by the Public Interest Law Center estimated that Pottstown receives $12 million less than its fair share in state funding each year.
With an annual budget of about $59 million — and a looming budget deficit of $1.2 million — that additional funding represents more than 20 percent of Pottstown’s current schools budget.
“If we received $12 million more each year, it would be a natural economic stimulus,” Rodriguez said. “Not only would we be able to reduce the tax burden and put money back in our taxpayers’ pockets, our students would have educational opportunities wealthier districts take for granted.”
Because the cost of living is so much higher in southeastern Pennsylvania than much of the rest of the state, even wealthier districts in the area are getting shortchanged, but not by nearly as much.
Mosenkis performed another comparison for Digital First Media, which showed that Owen J. Roberts and Spring-Ford Area school districts are getting between $300 to $400 less per student than their fair share, again if all state basic education funding were distributed through the fair funding formula.
Unlike in other states, which have had a fair funding formula for years and which fund about 50 percent of school district budgets, Pennsylvania only funds about 33 percent, leaving the majority of the rest to be raised by local property taxes.
That means districts with lower property values like Pottstown, struggle to raise enough to fill that gap with high tax rates and low return on them, particularly given that Pottstown’s total property assessment has dropped by $34 million in the last 10 years.
One of the culprits causing this situation is something called “hold harmless.”
That’s an agreement the General Assembly reached when it stopped funding schools according to its actual statistics in 1991.
“Hold harmless” promised that no district will receive less money than it did the previous year.
But when you look at state funding on a per student basis, “hold harmless” means districts that are losing population — primarily in the western and central portions of the state — will have their per student share of state funding continue to rise, whether they get an increase in any particular year or just the same as the previous year.
As Keystone Crossroads reported last June, “of the top 25 districts in terms of per-pupil state funding, all but one has seen enrollment drop since 1991.”
“Hold harmless” is also one of the reasons that the fair funding formula is not applied to all education funding from the state, just the additional funding added since the 2015-2015 budget, when the formula was adopted.
That means just 6 percent of state education funding is pumped through the fair formula and 94 percent of the funding will continue to be guided by “hold harmless” and continue to discriminate against poor, less white school districts.
“By applying the fair funding formula only to education dollars in excess of the 2014-2015 budget, recent legislation locks in systemic racial discrimination in the distribution of state funds,” Mosenkis wrote.
“Current law prescribes that the whitest districts continue to receive thousands of dollars per student more than their fair share, while the least white districts receive thousands per student less than their fair share,” he concluded. “This systemic bias will remain in place in perpetuity until the law is changed.”
Changing education to using the fair funding formula exclusively, whether phased in over several years or more quickly, also solves the problem its adoption exposed.
Simply using the funding formula for all state education funding eliminates the racial bias and puts all Pennsylvania students on a level playing field with equal chance for success, said both studies.
If the entire basic education pot were divided fairly according to the new student-weighted formula, a redistribution would occur in which $1.1 billion would be taken from 350 districts and provided to the other 150 poorer districts, according to Keystone Crossroads.
“It’s true that about two-thirds of districts are getting more than their fair share and one-third are not,” Mosenkis said. “But the vast majority of those districts getting more are small rural district with small populations and they actually represent a minority of students in the state.
“If you look at it on a per student basis, the larger districts are the ones getting less of their fair share, but they represent the majority of the students in the state.”
Mosenkis also rejects the idea that changing the distribution of school dollars would constitute harm to some districts to help others.
“Because that defines ‘no harm’ as the status quo, when the majority of students in Pennsylvania are harmed by the status quo,” he said. “To not change this system so that all education funding goes through the fair funding formula is to say systemically that some students are more deserving of resources than others.”
But in Pennsylvania, where no formula dispassionately dictates where the vast majority of educating funding is distributed, it is not what your population represents that matters, but who represents your population.
“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,” McCorry observed in his Keystone Crossroads piece.
“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,” he wrote.
The political reality then, say many of the state’s elected officials, is that the districts on the losing end of this equation do not have the political clout to fix it.
“If it were up to me, I would change it,” state Rep. Tom Quigley, R-146, a member of the House Education Committee, told Digital First Media. “The reality is, there are about 149 winning districts, for lack of a better word, and about 352 losing districts.
“Most of us in the southeast favor this because most of our districts would benefit. I think Pottstown’s state funding would go up by 74 percent, and even Spring-Ford would see a 26 percent rise and Perkiomen Valley would go up by 22 percent.”
Quigley said there has been some discussion among representatives from the southeast, Poconos and in the south-central area of the state about a bill that would keep “hold harmless” but provide all new education funding only to the underfunded districts to distributed through the fair funding formula.
To distribute all funding through the formula and keep “hold harmless” would require an additional $1.1 billion in education funding, something education advocates would doubtless welcome.
But Quigley said he doubted anything would be accomplished in the current budget year.
“As time goes on, we may be able to move more money through the fair funding method,” he said.
“I was shocked,” state Rep. Tim Hennessey, R-26, told Digital First Media after being sent Mosenkis’s video, which he forwarded to the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. “I don’t know that any of us realized it had played out that way. I guess this is what they’re talking about when they talk about the law of unintended consequences.”
Hennessey, who represents six school districts, also warned of the political difficulties of changing how education funding is distributed by Harrisburg.
“The question that matters ultimately is how do you get to 102 votes? Especially when leadership represents districts that would lose money if you changed the system,” he said, adding that he agrees with the idea of more quickly using the fair funding formula for distribution of state aid.
“I doubt very much this situation exists by design,” Mosenkis said. “I don’t think people got together in a back room and said, ‘Let’s discriminate against students of color.’”
However, “the fact of the matter is white people are better connected. They have more political clout and when they are doing their best to exercise their influence, this is likely to happen.”
What matters now, he said, is what gets done about it.
“I can forgive historical, accidental dispersing of education funding,” he said. “But now that we have shone a light on its existence, now that we know there is a systemic bias that favors white populations, there is no excuse for not fixing it.”