Educational Equity, Adequacy, and Equal Opportunity in the Commonwealth: An Evaluation of Pennsylvania's School Finance System

Bruce Baker, Rutgers University

Pennsylvania has historically operated one of the nation’s least equitable state school finance systems, and within that system exist some of the nation’s most fiscally disadvantaged public school districts. This AIR report finds that Pennsylvania’s system for financing public schools severely underfunds many of the state’s highest need urban and rural public school districts. Inequities were exacerbated during the economic downturn due to reductions in state aid and a retreat from the 2008 Basic Education Funding formula. The formula was an effort by the legislature and governor to make funding for the state’s 501 school districts equitable so all students have the opportunity to meet Pennsylvania’s statewide academic standards.

The report finds that the average levels of both school spending and student achievement in Pennsylvania are above the national average, but fail to meet the most basic equity standards, with significant numbers of districts serving high-need populations having substantially lower per-pupil spending than surrounding districts serving more advantaged populations. In addition, the report shows that while average levels of measured student achievement and growth over time are reasonably high across the state, large student achievement gaps coincide with district funding gaps. Because large shares of high-need children attend under- resourced districts, the system also fails on the equal educational opportunity standard, which dictates that children should be provided resource levels necessary for having equal opportunity to achieve comparable outcomes, regardless of their personal and family circumstances, or where they reside. These equal opportunity deficiencies are additionally reflected in actual outcome disparities.

The report provides an overview of the state of school funding in Pennsylvania; a review of current conceptions of educational equity, adequacy and equal opportunity; empirical methods for measuring education costs; current policies across states; and recent reforms. The first chapter summarizes the current status of the school funding system and student outcomes in Pennsylvania. The second chapter outlines conceptions of equity, adequacy and equal educational opportunity and provide an overview and critique of methods for measuring educational adequacy and informing state school finance policy. A conclusion gives an overview of the current landscape of school finance policy, and the intersection between emerging evidence on education costs and state school finance policy design.

The William Penn Foundation provided financial support to conduct the research for this report.