April 2017

Insufficient school funding is not just an urban or suburban problem; it is a state problem. That is the main takeaway from a report on rural schools recently released by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children (PPC).

The report, "Spending Impact on Student Achievement: A Rural Perspective," found that of Pennsylvania’s 260 rural school districts, 202 are not receiving their fair share of state funding, forcing districts to either spend less and risk student achievement or increase local taxes.

In turn, 158 rural districts spend below the amount needed to properly educate students – or the “adequacy target.” When rural school districts do not reach that adequacy target, the under spending is a direct result of inadequate state support. That lack of support negatively affects student achievement.

Like urban school districts and those in less affluent suburbs, many rural schools educate significant numbers of children living in poverty. Their students live in economically disadvantaged communities that are confronting serious social challenges like the growing opioid problem. These rural schools must deal with smaller student populations across larger and sparsely populated areas that present higher transportation costs and that limit the ability to save money through economies of scale. Rural school districts frequently lack the local tax base to raise sufficient funds through property taxes. That is a significant problem since the state shoulders only 37 percent of the cost of K-12 education, ranking it 46th in the country in state share.

This gap in resources is affecting student outcomes. More than one-third of 3rd grade students attending rural school districts scored below proficient on the English Language Arts state assessment, and two-thirds of students attending rural districts scored below proficient on the 8th grade Mathematics state assessment. In the 81 rural school districts spending 10 percent or more below the adequacy target, students are performing worse than the rural average.

West Perry School District's student achievement is impacted similarly to many underfunded rural districts with 36% of students not reaching proficiency on the 3rd grade English Language Arts PSSA and nearly 75% were not proficient on the 8th grade Math PSSA. Joan Benso, President & CEO of Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children and chair of the Campaign for Fair Funding and Dr. Ed Albert, Executive Director, Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools have stated, “that the state is underfunding West Perry School District by more than $4.4 million annually.”

Assessment scores are not the only measure of student achievement, but these results should raise concern for community members and state policymakers.

Rural school officials do their best despite difficult fiscal circumstances to support qualified teachers and provide up-to-date textbooks, small class sizes and other supports that help students achieve. In the best of circumstances, classrooms are equipped with tools that can enhance learning to help them compete in the technology-driven society we live in. Teachers are the most important resource in public education. Unfortunately, West Perry School District was forced to reduce their teaching staff by 22.5 positions during the 2016-2017 budget process in order to maintain a reasonable budget.

Last year policymakers took an important first step in addressing the existing funding disparities among school districts by permanently adopting a fair funding formula based on the recommendations of the bipartisan Basic Education Funding Commission (BEFC). The student-driven formula directs new state funds to local school districts based on objective factors including enrollment, poverty, number of English Language Learners and charter school attendance. It also addresses district size, density, wealth and local tax effort – factors that reflect student and community needs unique to rural school districts.

However, the fact remains that despite passage of the new formula and more than $400 million in state funding increases over the last two fiscal years, funding for public education remains inadequate in many school districts.

With state budget negotiations underway, our hope is for policymakers to consider the widespread, significant impact that underfunding public education has on all students and their achievement. The increase of $100 million for public schools in Governor Wolf’s proposed 2017-18 budget is an important investment in a difficult budget year. However, we need significant and sustained funding increases over several years, run through the fair funding formula to ensure that all students – whether they travel to school on city streets or country roads - have the resources needed to succeed.