Court case could upend Pa.'s public-school funding
Should Pennsylvania increase its funding for public school districts so that less wealthy districts with lower property values are on par with wealthier districts with higher property values? Should the state replace school property taxes entirely on an equalized basis or some other “equitable” formula? Should the General Assembly adopt provisions of a decade-old “costing-out” study and raise revenue to implement it?
These are among critical questions likely to be argued when Commonwealth Court re-hears what still could be the seminal case regarding Keystone State education funding, say the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy's Eric Montarti, a senior policy analyst, and Jake Haulk, president. “Could,” however, remains the operative word.
On Sept. 28, a year after oral arguments, the state Supreme Court remanded William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education back to the lower appellate court. The Delaware County district and others (plus two statewide associations and parents) claim the commonwealth abrogated its constitutional responsibilities to maintain and support a thorough and efficient public education system.
Citing separation of powers in April 2015, Commonwealth Court said courts are not competent to set such a standard without infringing on the Legislature's policymaking role. The Supreme Court disagreed, saying the plaintiffs should at least have the chance to make their case. But all likely funding options have shortcomings, Montarti and Haulk say.
“The General Assembly would likely oppose an order from the court ... to increase state funding or end local funding and would almost certainly appeal,” they remind. “And who knows how long the court proceeding would take.” Wealthier districts, citing local control, likely would continue to resist shifting away from local property taxes, they add.
That “costing-out” study was “methodologically crippled,” they remind: “In reviewing two geographically close districts that had over 90 percent proficiency, (it) made the obviously absurd recommendation that one district would have to spend $3,000 more per student while another would have to spend only $200 to boost proficiency to 100 percent.”
Some districts have poor academic achievement despite massive state funding. “What is to be done about those districts? Even more state dollars?” Montarti and Haulk ask. “Where and when does concern for the benefit taxpayers receive from spending begin to play a role in the discussion about funding?”
Too little attention has been paid to the fact that spending levels do not necessarily correlate with achievement. With Pennsylvania's bifurcated funding system and local control, the bottom-line question, Montarti and Haulk say, is “who will decide, and on what basis, how to ensure (an) equal level of educational opportunity if the main criterion is money spent per student?”
Given political realities surrounding local control, they say changing public-education funding cannot be anything but “a messy, drawn-out and expensive process.”
Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (email@example.com).