Down for the Count
When Alice journeyed through Wonderland, one potion made her larger and another made her small.
The 2020 Census data shows that Pennsylvania is seeing the effects of taking both potions at the same time, and it’s causing a conflict that even the Mad Hatter couldn’t conjure up.
Seventy percent of PA counties saw a population decline over the last decade, but southeastern PA counties grew by 5.1%, the highest growing region in the state. This confirms what we already knew – massive school enrollment shifts. Since 2010, southeastern student populations grew by nearly 8,000 students with districts like Lower Merion, Upper Merion, and Springfield topping the charts while districts in Clarion, Cambria, Mercer, Somerset, and Crawford counties saw student populations decline by over 10,000.
Typically, population increases are supposed to be a good thing but only in Pennsylvania does it work in reverse. Thanks to Pennsylvania’s “Hold Harmless” education funding policy, those growing districts are not getting enough state funding to meet their growing demands. On the other hand, those shrinking districts are still on track for state funding increases because Hold Harmless says that school districts cannot receive less funding than the year prior.
In other words, shrinking districts retain their funding while growing districts get squeezed. The Red Queen would be pleased.
The Children First report “Hold Harmless” – A Quarter Century of Inequity at the Heart of Pennsylvania’s School System shows that, as of 2020, shrinking districts received $590 million tied to students they no longer educate. “The state has created a system that helps one set of struggling districts but, due to legislative inaction, does so on the backs of another set of struggling districts.”
If we divvy up the state funding by number of individual students, shrinking districts have $3,600 more to spend per student than growing districts. This also means that basic education funding per student in shrinking districts is now more than double what is provided for students in growing ones.
For example, Penncrest School District in Crawford County enrollment dropped by 25.6% since 2010 while Haverford Township School District in Delco saw a 16.7% increase. During the same time, Penncrest received $1.3 million more than Haverford in state education funding.
Shrinking districts still need sufficient funding – it costs just as much to light the room for one student as it does for 30 – but growing districts and their taxpayers struggle to meet the student demand. The Hold Harmless report outlines a multi-part plan to fix Pennsylvania’s broken education funding system, recommending that the state should provide supplemental funding to districts that have the least funds relative to their student needs.
Pennsylvania doesn’t need a magic potion to make this right, just good public policy. The state legislature recently took a step in the right direction by enacting the Level Up Supplement, directing $100 million in new state funding to the 100 highest poverty/lowest spending school districts. While this was a major win for the PA Schools Work campaign (of which Children First is a leading member), it falls far short of filling the state’s $4.6 billion education funding (rabbit) hole.
The Census numbers don’t lie. Pennsylvania lawmakers know how our state’s population is dramatically shifting, but they still refuse to find a solution that provides a thorough and efficient education to students statewide. Curiouser and curiouser, indeed.