Fair Funding Formulas: Steps Toward Equity in Education
November 20, 2016
By Megan Brookens
My interest in the process of creating and implementing a fair funding formula grew out of my experiences working in the Philadelphia school system. The lack of guidance counselors and school nurses, high turnover of educators, and crumbling infrastructure for many public schools in Philadelphia creates an unstable learning environment, leaving students without a fair chance. Philadelphia and the United States as a whole remain highly segregated—racially and economically— and the devastating effects of this segregation on the school system are evident.
The chart below illustrates the trend in our education system where a family’s socioeconomic status correlates with the educational attainment of their children. According to the data, students in the richest school districts are four grade levels ahead of those in the poorest. These richer school districts are often segregated by race as well, which highlights the disproportionate effects of school funding on minority students.  
Take a look at students in the city of Philadelphia, for example, who are 1.3 grade levels below average with a median family income of $31,000. The population is 14% White, 18% Hispanic, 59% Black, and 9% Asian/Other. Students in Lower Merion, a suburb outside of Philadelphia, rank much higher at 2.7 grade levels about average with a median family income of $152,000. The population in Lower Merion is 79% White, 3% Hispanic, 8% Black, 10% Asian/Other.
This summer, I worked at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law with their Educational Opportunities Project. Through this amazing opportunity, I was able to learn more about what is being done to combat the racial and economic inequalities in our education system. As part of my internship, I attended a hearing with Congressman Mike Honda from California who is part of a group to introduce the Equity and Excellence in American Education Act.
In order to meet the needs of all students, Congressman Honda suggests focusing on the inputs—what it takes to educate children—instead of solely on the outputs—how well students are performing on tests. Research around effective teaching methods and school strategies has been extensive, but the funding has stagnated in terms of implementation. As a result, teachers and students are blamed for a system that did not set them up for success. 
Honda’s bill built off of recommendations from the Equity and Excellence Commission, which was created by Congress to research effective approaches to educating all children. Their report highlights the need for fair or equitable school finance and the far reaching benefits of adequately investing in education. For example, $50 trillion could be added to our economy if low-income African American and Hispanic students were given the resources and opportunities to perform at the same level as their white counterparts in higher income neighborhoods. 
In Honda’s bill, each school would have a tailored funding formula based on the needs of that particular population. For example, funding calculations would take into consideration the impacts of concentrated poverty on a student’s ability to learn and the subsequent number of guidance counselors, social workers, and school psychologists needed. This evidence-based investment will save money and help with accountability. 
Currently, this process of calculating based on need is not being implemented on a large scale. The most recent Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) set from the Department of Education Civil Rights Division shows that many students lack access to critical resources such as school counselors. About 95% of high school students have access to at least one school counselor, but 21% of high schools—850,000 students nationwide—do not have access to any school counselor. 
In fact, the ratio of students to counselors reflects an even more disturbing reality. The national average is 491 students for every counselor and Pennsylvania has an average of 412:1. The American School Counselor Association recommends a 250-to-1 ratio based on their important role within the school and community. 
One of the cost-effective, evidence-based strategies that Honda includes is the community school model in which social services are integrated in schools and tailored to the needs of each individual school. In Philadelphia, the Mayor’s Office of Education has begun to implement Community School and Universal Pre-K strategies. Pennsylvania’s method of funding schools made the implementation harder because much of the funding is based on local real estate and other taxes. A tax on sugary drinks was passed in Philadelphia which enabled the Universal Pre-K and Community School programs to move forward; however, equitable financing programs on the state, local, and federal levels are each necessary in order to effectively levy resources to meet the needs of all students without such high local reliance.
Until June 2016, Pennsylvania remained one of only three states without a fair funding formula. Pennsylvania now has “the Basic Education Funding (BEF) Formula” which will take into account criteria such as “the wealth of the district, the district’s current tax effort, and the ability of the district to raise revenue.” There are also substantial factors related to the students served such as “the number of children in the district who live in poverty, the number of children enrolled in charter schools, and the number of children who are English language learners.” 
Although the BEF formula was recently adopted, some advocates continue to push for more comprehensive reform while others push back against the policy, arguing that the Pennsylvania Constitution does not guarantee fair funding. The only education clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution states that, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” The interpretation of what a “thorough and efficient” education guarantees varies depending on political ideology and geographic location. 
This continued debate in Pennsylvania highlights larger bureaucratic barriers to the implementation of an equitable education finance system across the country, namely ambiguity created by differing interpretations of the right to education. Policies regarding education have reverberating effects in all areas of this country and affect our global contributions. Prioritizing education is a choice that needs to be made and should be addressed as a bipartisan issue in the interest of all students. There is a long way to go, but I have been inspired by the dedicated advocates in D.C. pushing crucial legislation forward to provide concrete opportunity regardless of a student’s background.
 M. Rich, A. Cox, and M. Bloch, “Money, Race, and Success: How Your School District Compares,” New York Times, 29-Apr-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 01-Jun-2016].
 S. Reardon, D. Kalogrides, and K. Shores, “The Geography of Racial/Ethnic Test Score Gaps”, Stanford Center for Education Policy Analysis, Apr-2016. [Online]. Available: https://cepa.stanford.edu/sites/default/files/wp16-10-v201604.pdf. [Accessed: 01-Jun-2016].
 “For Each and Every Child: A Strategy for Education Equity and Excellence,” 2013. [Online]. Available: http://www.foreachandeverychild.org. [Accessed 10-Jul-2016]
 “Civil Rights Data Collection 2013-2104: First Look Report,” Department of Education, 07-Jun-2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2016/04/29/upshot/money-race-and-success-how-your-school-district-compares.html?_r=0. [Accessed: 01-Aug-2016].
 “2013-2104 State Nonfiscal Public Elementary/Secondary Education Survey,” U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics. [Online]. Available: https://www.schoolcounselor.org/asca/media/asca/home/Ratios13-14LowestToHighest.pdf. [Accessed: 24-Jul-2016].
 M. Fox, “Philadelphia Passes Sweet Drink Tax,” NBC News, 16-Jun-2016. [Online] Available: http://www.nbcnews.com/health/health-news/philadelphia-council-passes-sugary-drink-tax-n593936. [Accessed: 17-Jun-2016].
 “Governor Wolf Signs Fair Funding Formula, Renews Call to Restore Funding,” 02-Jun-2016. [Online]. Available: https://www.governor.pa.gov/governor-wolf-signs-fair-funding-formula-renews-call-to-restore-funding/. [Accessed 20-Jun-2016].
 “Pennsylvania’s Education Funding Case: Here’s what you need to know,” Newsworks, 12-Sept- 2016. [Online]. Available: http://www.newsworks.org/index.php/local/education/97095-pennsylvanias-education-funding-case-heres-what-you-need-to-know. [Accessed 12-Sept-2016]
Additional Blog Posts
Student Blog Disclaimer
The views expressed on the Student Blog are the author’s opinions and don’t necessarily represent the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative’s strategies, recommendations, or opinions.