The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Surprising new research on school funding

By Matthew P. Steinberg and Rand Quinn

At the request of the Philadelphia  City Council, we recently began examining school funding in Pennsylvania, focusing on trends in education funding and spending in the state’s largest school  district, the School District of Philadelphia (SDP). While the SDP is perennially underfunded and among the lowest-performing districts in the state, our preliminary findings from an ongoing study of school funding suggest that the SDP does more, per pupil, with its current resources  than its closest counterparts in terms of student poverty and achievement. Indeed, we believe that the  SDP, rather than a story of failure, is a story of possibility.

In our investigation, we compared Philadelphia to its peers—the 5 percent of districts in the state with the lowest average math and reading scores on state achievement tests. In terms of actual spending, in 2009-10, the SDP spent approximately $2,000 less per student than its peer districts and yet generated slightly better results on state tests. (We use 2009-10 data throughout this report, because that’s the most recent data available from the federal government.)

The difference became even more striking when we estimated the adequacy gap for the SDP and its nearest peers. The adequacy gap is the extent to which actual spending falls below the level necessary to provide adequate educational services to all students. In 2006, the Pennsylvania General Assembly commissioned a study to “cost out” the adequacy amount for the state’s students. We based our estimates of the adequacy gap on the methodology employed in the study, accounted for inflation, and applied it to every district in the state.

Based on our calculations, SDP’s adequacy gap was $5,478. The adequacy gap for its nearest peers in terms of math achievement was $1,396. This means that not only were Philadelphia public school students achieving slightly better scores with far less funding than their peers in similar districts, but they were doing so despite an adequacy shortfall that was four times bigger than that of their nearest counterparts. We found similar results when we looked into reading achievement. Although additional research is necessary to discover the reasons for these differences, our preliminary findings suggest that if the SDP were provided an adequate level of resources, it could make great strides in improving the academic achievement for all of the district’s students.

Of course, the fact remains that neither the SDP nor its nearest counterparts are even close to adequate levels of achievement, with all of them hovering, on average, near the 50 percent mark for both math and reading proficiency. So our findings should in no way be interpreted as a call to slash funding for any of these districts. If anything, we see this as evidence in favor of reinstating a statewide fair funding formula, which takes into consideration differences across districts in the characteristics of the students served – such as poverty, English language learners, and special education – as well as characteristics of the district itself, such as local labor market conditions and cost of living, among other student and district factors.

We calculated that, statewide, the adequacy gap for all non-charter school districts (including the SDP) in 2009-10 was, on average, $751 per pupil, a figure that masks vast differences across districts by student poverty and academic performance. For the 25 percent of districts serving the largest percentage of poor students, the average adequacy gap was $1,253 per pupil. In contrast, the 25 percent of districts serving the lowest share of poor students had an adequacy surplus of, on average, $180 per pupil, suggesting that these low-poverty districts  spent, on average, more per pupil than was necessary for their students to achieve academically.

The oft-told story of Philadelphia’s school system is one of  frustration and failure. But our findings suggest that it’s actually one of possibility in the face of extreme duress.