Adequate and Equitable: What it Means for PA Schools

(November 17, 2023)

We at Allies for Children have already written quite a few blogs following the court decision back in February which found Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional. For an explanation of why the court came to this decision and how school funding currently works in PA, see our first blog on the subject. As we stated back then, one of the ways for the state to fulfill their constitutional obligation to adequately and equitably fund our schools would be to see if there is a better way to allocate those funds to our schools.

As someone who is still relatively new to the world of policy and children’s issues, equity can be a tricky concept to get a grip on. Equity is not the same as equality. When distribution of resources (in any situation, not just funding for schools) is equal everybody gets the same thing. When distribution of resources is equitable each party gets what they, individually, need for every party to be put on the same level. In terms of school funding, some schools in our neediest and most struggling communities need more resources from the state than our more affluent communities who are able to provide more resources locally. Additionally, students come to school with lots of different needs and having a funding structure that takes that into account is crucial.

In a recent brief from the Penn State Center for Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Dr. Ed Fuller took a look at exactly how that inequity manifests between Pennsylvania’s highest and lowest funded schools.

In the report, Dr. Fuller notes that, in general, school districts that receive the lowest levels of funding are far more likely to employ novice and uncertified teachers. These districts also experience higher rates of teacher and principal turnover, and are less likely to have reasonable ratios of students to counselors and to librarians. His research highlights that all of these things can have negative effects on student performance and achievement, but particularly for those students who come from economically disadvantaged families or are part of minority groups.

For example, the report states that low-funded PA middle schools saw 22.6% of their teachers leave, compared to only 11.9% of teachers at high-funded middle schools. For high schools, the difference was 17.1% versus 11.0%, and for elementary schools it was 16.1% versus 12.0%. Dr. Fuller states in the report that this kind of turnover can be detrimental to students’ success. Research from Vanderbilt University supports this, showing that losing a teacher during the school year can cause students to lose anywhere from 32 to 72 days of instructional time.

All of the disparities shown in Dr. Fuller’s data demonstrate that students at low-funded Pennsylvania schools are receiving less effective education and support than their peers at high-funded schools. Novice and uncertified teachers mean less effective teaching, lack of counselors and librarians means students have less access to the support they need to succeed in their classes and in their lives after school.

All of these numbers and information are already scary enough, but who, exactly, are the students that these lowest funded schools are serving? According to Dr. Fuller’s data, in the lowest funded Pennsylvania middle schools, 73.6% of students are economically disadvantaged (33.3% at the highest funded middle schools), 39.0% are Black (12.8%), and 22.6% are Hispanic (6.6%). The numbers for elementary and high schools reflect similar differences. This means that the students who need the most support are receiving the least.

As Dr. Fuller writes:

In short, the Commonwealth’s current system of funding provides fewer human and fiscal resources to the children who need access to human and fiscal resources the most. These children tend to be disproportionately children of color and children in poverty. To improve overall outcomes for all children in the Commonwealth, we must adopt a more equitable and adequate school funding system.

Schools are more than just places where children learn – it’s where they form lasting and supportive relationships with adults, where they receive help with college and job applications or other life circumstances they may be struggling with, where they find resources to help them make sense of the world around them. But students can’t learn properly or do any of these other things if teachers are constantly cycling in and out or if the adults that are there to support them are too busy with too many students to form those vital relationships.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania needs to find a way to adequately and equitably fund our schools so that all students, especially those who are already struggling, receive the education and support they need to succeed.

See our previous blogs on education funding:
School Funding Ruled Unconstitutional in PA
School Funding Court Decision Becomes Final, BEF Commission Formed
BEF Commission Makes a Stop in Pittsburgh

For more on Dr. Fuller’s study:
Study finds inequitable Pa. school funding leaves behind children living in poverty and rural areas (WESA)

Laura Condon, Allies for Children Project Coordinator