Commentary

The only fair local share of school funding

A Lower Merion student weighs in on how to make school funding truly equitable in Pennsylvania

(Photo by Getty Images)

By Gwen Shapiro

William Penn School District students endure, “a basement room that has an opening to a sump pump, a large drainage pipe running through it, and thick bundles of wires snaking across the walls,” as a classroom, due to overcrowding and lack of funding for a new building, as the former Superintendent testifies.

In contrast, at my school, Lower Merion, we spend education dollars on machines that catch basketballs after they go through the net and eject them back to the player.

In the aftermath of the school funding system being declared unconstitutional, advocates urge Pennsylvania to determine what percentage of school funding should be provided by state, rather than local or federal, funding sources, also known as the “state share”.

However, many do not consider the inequities that allowing any funding to come from local sources will cause. Likewise, many politicians claim to support school funding equity but avoid the fact that a truly equitable system will require redistributing funds from the wealthiest districts to the poorest.

Pennsylvania must prohibit local school funding because simply increasing state funding without redistributing revenue will not make the system equitable. Otherwise, we will continue to deliberately send a message that the wealthiest communities are entitled to better schools.

A report by school funding scholar Matthew Kelly calculated funding targets for Pennsylvania’s school districts and found that underfunded districts collectively lacked $6,258,438,239. Targets were calculated by analyzing spending in districts meeting state standards, but high spending outliers, including Lower Merion, were excluded from the analysis.

Without reducing funding in the wealthiest districts, they’ll have disproportionate resources because their level of spending was discarded when calculating adequacy targets, meaning the standard of funding that Pennsylvania is obligated to provide districts will fall short of the standard of the highest spending outliers, creating a still inequitable system.

Concentrating disproportionate resources in wealthy districts causes misprioritizing spending uses. Consider that Lower Merion spent $90,000,000 building a new school to relieve overcrowding. They weren’t resorting to holding classes in closets or basements due to limited space.

However, the lawsuit verdict memorandum states that overcrowded, underfunded schools resort to, “makeshift classrooms set up in hallways, closets, and basements,” like in William Penn. It would’ve made the most sense if the money spent to relieve overcrowding was spent on the most severe situations, but it wasn’t, because it was collected and controlled locally, by Lower Merion.

PA Schools Work states that, “reallocating funds from well-funded districts… is impractical because the funds that push some wealthy districts to the top are… their own locally-raised revenues.” Therefore, once you reframe the solution as a complete restructuring of funding, it becomes clear that the need to eliminate local school funding is precisely because of the necessity to redistribute money.

By prohibiting local revenue and making up the funding by increasing state-levied taxes, the state would not technically be reallocating locally-generated revenue.

However, the poorest districts currently have the highest local tax effort and vice versa, so eliminating local funding in tandem with a state tax designed to apply the burden of school taxes flatly or progressively combined with increasing the portion of the funding that goes to the poorest districts would effectively mean the same thing: poor districts would get more funding and school tax relief while wealthy districts would contribute more to the statewide school funding pot.

In a system where my school’s spinning chairs and custom doormats take priority over giving a district just a few miles away something as basic as an air-conditioned, asbestos free building, equity cannot be achieved by only increasing state funding. Funding in the wealthiest districts must be restricted, reduced, and redistributed. We need to ensure that wealthy districts cannot use locally generated revenue to raise their level of funding above the standard that the state is willing to guarantee everybody else.

The only fair local share is 0%.

Gwen Shapiro is a 11th grade student at Lower Merion High School who is passionate about equity in all areas. Born in Philadelphia, she has lived in Lower Merion for nine years.

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