School & District Management

Study Finds Need for Sharp School Spending Hike in Pa.

By Catherine Gewertz — November 21, 2007 3 min read
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Pennsylvania must increase education spending by nearly 27 percent in order to reach its goal of bringing all students to proficiency in mathematics and reading by 2014, according to a financial analysis ordered by state lawmakers.

School finance consultants John Augenblick, Robert Palaich, and Justin Silverstein told the Pennsylvania board of education Nov. 14 that overall spending on education in the state would have to grow by $4.6 billion per year—or $2,500 more per child, on average—if it is to meet the targets laid out by the federal No Child Left Behind Act.

Their projections were part of a briefing to the state board in Harrisburg on key findings of a “costing-out” study that their Denver-based company, Augenblick, Palaich, and Associates, recently completed. The state legislature asked for the study in July 2006, and in December, the state education department tapped Mr. Augenblick’s company to do it. But given the political difficulties of channeling billions more into education, the outlook for legislative change is uncertain.

The study examined what Pennsylvania as a whole spent on public education in 2005-06, and compared that with how much it should have spent that year to meet its performance standards. The state spent $17.3 billion—an average of $9,512 per child—in 2005-06, the study found, but should have spent $21.9 billion— $12,057 per child—in order to meet its academic goals.

The Augenblick team calculated a “base cost” of educating each student, excluding such expenses as food services, transportation, and capital projects. They added cost “weights” for students learning English, those who come from poverty, and those in special or gifted education, and weights for district characteristics such as size, enrollment trends, and local cost of living. Those calculations established recommended spending ranges for districts based on need.

The study noted that Pennsylvania’s poorest districts had to raise taxes more than its wealthiest because they lack the tax base to support local schools. The state attempts to ease those disparities by sending more money to needier districts, it said, but since state funds account for only about one-third of total school spending, the state cannot close those gaps.

The study also found that 474 of the state’s 501 districts—95 percent—are spending less than the recommended levels.

Creating a Bottom Line

Secretary of Education Gerald L. Zahorchak said the study validates key initiatives undertaken by Democratic Gov. Edward G. Rendell, including the establishment in 2005-06 of a minimum, or “foundation,” funding level for the state’s poorest districts. This year, that level is $9,337 per student. Mr. Zahorchak said the study makes clear that even that amount is far less than what is needed. He called on the legislature to hammer out a new formula.

If a recent poll is any indication, public sentiment appears to favor a change. In a telephone poll of 800 Pennsylvanians, conducted this fall for the Harrisburg-based Education Policy and Leadership Center, more than half said the state spends too little on education and that its funding system is unfair. Eighty-four percent said the state should pay at least half the cost of education.

Ronald R. Cowell, the center’s president, said the 27 percent spending increase suggested for Pennsylvania is not as steep as those recommended in costing-out studies for some other states. Earlier this year, such studies suggested hikes of 64 percent in Montana and 45 percent in Washington state, according to a center survey.

Janis Risch, the director of Good Schools Pennsylvania, one of three groups, including the Education Policy and Leadership Center, that formed a coalition to push for a new funding formula, is optimistic that the study will catalyze action. She said it is “a promising sign” that just before the study’s release, two lawmakers proposed establishing a joint legislative committee to craft a new funding formula.

But the legislature, already under pressure to reduce school costs and the property taxes that support schools, could find it difficult to funnel more money into education. The state’s $27.2 billion fiscal 2008 budget includes $9.4 billion for precollegiate education.

“The reality is that we’ve been underfunding education for years, and we need to meet that challenge,” said Rep. James R. Roebuck Jr., a Democrat and the chairman of the House education committee. “But the problem is, how do you find the amount of money they’re suggesting we need to find?”

A version of this article appeared in the November 28, 2007 edition of Education Week as Study Finds Need for Sharp School Spending Hike in Pa.

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