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Education Funding and Education Achievement

By December 22, 2023December 27th, 2023No Comments

A year ago, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania violates its constitutional obligation to create a “thorough and efficient” system of school funding. In response, legislative leaders and Governor Shapiro have charged the Basic Education Funding Commission with providing a blueprint for General Assembly action that would meet our constitutional obligation.

In developing that blueprint, the General Assembly can learn from what other states have done. Seen from a national perspective, Judge Jubelirer’s decision is not an outlier. In response to similar court decisions, about half of states have added substantial state funding of K-12 education in the last thirty years. In almost every case, the judicial decisions, like that of Judge Jubelirer, focused on the inequity in school funding created by over-reliance on locally raised revenues to pay for schools.

Because Pennsylvania is a latecomer to school funding reform, a generation of our children has been denied a good education. And as a result, we have all suffered a terrible loss. But the delay gives us the benefit of learning from the large body of research on education and school funding that was stimulated by reform efforts in other states. That research shows us how effective new funding for underfunded schools in Pennsylvania can be in lifting student achievement and in their later-life success.

There was a time when scholars doubted that levels of school funding made much difference to educational outcomes. The famous Coleman Report of 1966 held that the economic well-being and education of parents made far more difference to education than school funding.

But with new statistic techniques, revaluations of the report and its successor have cast doubt on that conclusion.

And the natural experiments created by court-ordered school funding to underfunded school districts—which are disproportionately attended by students from low-income and Black and brown families—have shown that new school funding makes a huge difference both to educational achievement and the later-life success of students.

One of the best new studies, by Jackson, Johnson, and Persico, found that increasing spending by 10% benefits all children and especially those from low-income families for whom

  • the probability of high school graduation increases by roughly 10 percentage points.
  • adult hourly wages go up by 13%.
  • later-life family income goes up by 17.1%.
  • the likelihood of being married and never divorced increases by 10 percentage points.
  • the annual incidence of adult poverty declines by 6.1 percentage points.

Studies of new education funding in the states of Kansas, Massachusetts, Michigan, Vermont, and other states provide additional evidence that new funding makes a difference to student performance while raising outcomes especially for students from low-income families.

And another study that aggregated the result from  over 30 similar studies provides striking evidence that new funding to schools can make a significant difference in student outcomes regarding test scores, graduation rates, and college attendance. Students from all backgrounds benefit—Black, brown, and white and from low-income, moderate-income, and high-income families. But students from lower-income families benefit more. Higher levels of education spending can partly overcome the inequality generated by our economy and create real equality of opportunity for our children.

This new research has been so impressive that Eric A. Hanushek—a leading academic expert who has cast doubt on the idea that new funding will lead to better education and was the lead expert for the defense in the Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit—recently acknowledged that the preponderance of recent evidence shows that school funding does make an important difference to educational outcomes.

Hanushek points out—and we agree—that money must be spent wisely. But the same research that shows that new funding makes a difference also shows that underfunded schools spend that new money exactly how we would think they should—on recruiting and retaining better teachers, reducing class sizes, and making pre-K programs universal.

In responding to Judge Jubelirer’s ruling, Governor Shapiro and the Pennsylvania General Assembly don’t have to reinvent the wheel or take a shot in the dark. They must follow the path laid down by other states and substantially boost state funding, which would allow every school district in Pennsylvania to provide an education that meets the requirement of our constitution. We have every reason to believe that doing so will lead to better graduation rates, student achievement, higher wages and, in time, a stronger economy.