Last week, Gov. Tom Wolf held a press conference on the Capitol steps capping off a more than four-month campaign to promote drastically increasing district school funding. But his central claim, that school districts are underfunded and charter schools are the culprit, is the exact opposite of reality.
Wolf spoke from a podium prominently emblazoned with a sign proclaiming “Pennsylvania is 45th in education funding.” But Pennsylvania is not 45th in education funding – not even close.
According to the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics, Pennsylvania is 8th in the nation in education funding, with an average of $18,000 per student going to districts. The national average is about $14,000.
These facts are indisputable. Nevertheless, Pennsylvanians have been treated to a barrage of propaganda and misinformation on the issue. Wolf keeps repeating his talking point that the share of education funding coming from Harrisburg to school districts – the “state share” – is too low. He cites statistics from other states where a higher percentage of the expenses comes from the state budget.
“Percentage” is the key word. The state share in Pennsylvania only looks smaller because the amount of local funding to districts is humongous. Local funding per student at Pennsylvania public schools is more than $3,600 higher than the national average.
If Gov. Wolf and his allies want the ratio between state and local education funding to be more like other states, we’d have to cut local funding to bring it in line with the national average. Is that what Wolf advocates?
Another claim the governor made last week is that “most school funding in Pennsylvania has not changed for a generation.”
Again, this is a gross distortion. State-level funding to public education has relentlessly risen for decades. Pennsylvania state education funding has increased 68% since 1990 and 20% since 2010. And that’s after adjusting for inflation. Total funding to Pennsylvania public schools far surpasses most other states.
Finally, Wolf has conveniently ignored the huge sums of extra cash that districts have on hand. Before the pandemic, Pennsylvania school districts collectively held $4.84 billion in reserves. They have since received an additional $6.2 billion in federal COVID aid despite their buildings being mostly closed for the last year.
But instead of being honest about how much taxpayer money goes to school districts, Wolf has chosen to focus his fire on charter schools. Despite their impressive performance and mission to serve underprivileged communities across the state – at less taxpayer expense – the governor seeks to cut charter school funding by $400 million.
Wolf’s chosen cant is that the “skyrocketing costs of charter school education are costing taxpayers way too much money, and these costs have grown during the pandemic.” But this is another half-truth. The only reason charter schools have received more funding in recent years, especially since the pandemic, is because more kids have started attending those schools. Parents are voting with their feet.
When a child’s parents decide to move their child from a district school to a public charter school, the money directed toward that child’s public education moves with them.
And even when this happens, the charter school doesn’t receive the full amount. Believe it or not, the school district keeps roughly 25% of the funding for that student – even though it is no longer responsible for educating him or her.
As a result, charter schools end up saving taxpayers money by educating students at a 25% discount. Charter school funding only increases when enrollment increases. District school funding increases in perpetuity, even in the face of declining enrollment.
As lawmakers and Gov. Wolf negotiate a budget in coming weeks and decide on education funding and other education-related proposals, it’s important that Pennsylvanians know the truth. Education funding in our state is among the highest in the nation, and it has risen substantially over the last generation. Charter schools are not the cause of school districts’ purported financial woes – in fact, the opposite is true.
We can’t let the governor get away with manipulating voters to serve special interests. It’s not just about money – it’s about empowering our kids.