How the State Education Funding System Disadvantages Bensalem and Students of Color

By Vincent Montoya-Armanios

Advocates of reparations, affirmative action, and policies that aim to rectify racial inequality more broadly run up against a common (and typically bad-faith) question: legal segregation is over, we have the Civil Rights Act, so what justifies special privileges for the Black community? Pennsylvania’s educational funding scheme is one example of a systemic barrier to Black success—but it’s complicated.

Since 1992, Pennsylvania has applied a “hold harmless” funding system, which means that school districts are guaranteed to receive equal or more state education funds compared to the year prior. The logic behind this funding scheme is understandable: local school boards bear the burden of allocating seriously constrained budgets, and the risk of losing state funding would generate instability and unpredictability. However, this justification crumbles once you consider that school districts may lose students from one year to the next but receive just as much state funding. This system comparatively privileges those districts that lose students and punishes those that enroll new students, since funding is a zero-sum game.

In 2016, the PA legislature implemented a new funding formula that considers enrollment levels. However, only new funds (increases since 2016) are allocated using the newer formula. New funds account for only 11% of the total state education fund, so 89% of funds are distributed in accordance with the hold harmless rule. For our purposes, here’s the most important part: 80% of Black and Hispanic students in Pennsylvania attend growing school districts.

This demographic fact has serious implications for Pennsylvania’s students of color. According to a recent Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) report, the state allocates “$925 million less to high-poverty growing districts than it would if funding was distributed based on current enrollment levels and student and district need factors.” The report is careful to note that allocating all funds using the new formula without other reforms is not ideal since Pennsylvania education is so underfunded on the state-level. According to an organization called Fund Our Schools, 86% of students did not receive adequate funding according to state law.

Bensalem School District, which has a combined Black/Hispanic population of 32% and a poverty rate of 16%, receives $1,248 less per student under the current formula than they would if funding were allocated in proportion to student enrollment levels, according to the report. This means that Bensalem would receive almost $8 million more in state funding under a student-enrollment-based funding system, or about a 5% increase to their 2020 budget. 

The hold harmless rule also means that low-income but growing districts bear a disproportionate local tax burden. According to the report, sixteen severely impoverished school districts are ranked in the top 20 statewide in terms of their local tax burden (i.e. how much in local taxes they need to raise to make up for state funding gaps). Bensalem School Board member Vanessa Woods explains how the state funding system burdens Bensalem’s taxpayers and students: “We have seniors on fixed incomes, families living paycheck to paycheck and that all has been exacerbated by the pandemic. We have received some funding for PPE and corona related challenges, however, it doesn’t fully address the challenges virtual learning has presented with regards to access. The entire formula for funding needs to be recalculated so that all students can receive the education they deserve.”

The PCCY report states the following: “[Within the] 34 districts that are the absolute hardest-hit by the state’s funding system, nearly two-thirds of students are Black (35%) or Hispanic (30%). Also, 59% of both Black and Hispanic students in Pennsylvania attend one of these districts. The hold harmless funding approach therefore contributes to the structural racism in Pennsylvania’s education system, a system that denies the schools educating the majority of Black and Hispanic children from getting the same level of resources as others.” The following graph produced by David Mosenkis brings racial disparities in funding into sharp relief.

Funding Per Student, by Race and Poverty Level

Brown represents less white districts and yellow represents more white districts. (David Mosenkis)

Advocates for school funding parity are seeking to end the hold harmless system through both legislative and legal avenues. Legislatively, there is little reason for optimism. PA State Representative Chris Rabb put forth House Bill 961 in 2019, which would allocate all state education funds through a fair-funding formula. His bill never made it out of committee. In addition to Chris Rabb’s bill, another fair funding bill by Republican Jim Cox (PA HB 1313) also failed to advance beyond committee. Coleman Poses, a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS), currently performing policy research for the group, told Bucks County Rising that “hold harmless is a large rationale for keeping the funding the way that it is. People in the state legislature look at hold harmless as something that was handed down by God. It’s just not. It’s something that was decided legislatively in the 80’s and 90’s, and there’s no reason why other legislation can’t supersede legislation that’s unfair.”

On the legal front, a coalition of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, the Public Interest Law Center and others have filed suit to compel the legislature to adopt an equitable funding system. Sheila Armstrong, a Philadelphia parent and one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, explains what state funding inequities mean for students: “we have a librarian that only comes to the school twice a week, the nurse only comes once a week, the counselor is only there once a week. If our children need help on a Tuesday, and the counselor can only come in on Thursday, that child got to hold that in for two days?” Just two days ago (March 2nd), a Pennsylvania appellate court heard oral argument on the case.

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