The Need for Increased and Equalized Funding in PA (part 1)
When I arrived in Pennsylvania around five years ago, I was shocked to learn of the huge inequities in the state school finance system and, in fact, there there really was not a state school finance system at all–at least not in the same sense that other states have a well-defined and documented system for allocating money to districts. I was further amazed to discover that Pennsylvania has one of the most–if not THE most–inequitable school finance systems in the country (see http://www.schoolfundingfairness.org/).
Having witnessed decades of school finance litigation in Texas and actually participating in two of the court cases (2006 and 2012), I was surprised to learn that the PA courts have not become involved in the situation in PA. As we learned in Texas (starting in the early 1970s and through today), we learned that rarely does legislative leadership exists that can solve these problems without court intervention.
However, in PA, it seems that the Governor and Legislature are on the cusp of at least beginning to address this issue. If only a budget could be passed.
The state clearly needs a new finance system that provides greater resources through a more equitable allocation of such resources.
Unfortunately, there are many individuals in the Commonwealth–including legislators–that still believe money does not matter. Yet, research has clearly and consistently shown that money does, in fact, matter. For a review, see:
As Dr. Baker and other researchers point out, one reason that adequate and equitable finance systems improve outcomes is that the additional revenue allows districts to provide more and better quality educators as well as more and better opportunities for students.
School Support Personnel
So, let’s look at the provision of school support personnel by district wealth. In Pennsylvania, district wealth is determined by a district’s Market Value/Personal Income Aid ratio (MVPI) with high MVPI values indicating low wealth and low MVPI values indicating high wealth. In this analysis, I averaged the district MVPIs from 2008 through 2014, then ranked the average MVPIs. I then created 10 groups with 50 districts in each groups. In my analyses, I use the top two deciles to identify the 100 wealthiest districts (High Wealth) and the bottom two deciles to indicate the 100 poorest districts (Low Wealth).
By student support personnel, I mean educators and other employees of school districts that address the mental and physical needs of students or provide instruction, but in a less direct manner than teachers. Specifically, I include social workers, mental health specialists (e.g., psychologists), nurses, and librarians. Research generally supports the notion that students in high-poverty schools (in the case of Pennsylvania, also schools in low-wealth districts) have greater socio-emotional needs than other students, thus should have greater access to social workers, mental health specialists, and nurses.
In the chart below, I compare the percentage of schools with at least one part-time or full-time social worker, mental health specialist, or nurse by school level and district wealth.
Percentage of Schools with elected Student Support Personnel
by School Level and District Wealth
Remarkably, across the board, schools with arguably the most students in need of physical and mental health support are the least likely to have access to such professionals. This is especially true regarding mental health specialists and nurses. That schools in PA are not even required to have nurses is pretty incredible and, in combination with the inequitable funding system, results in a substantial percentage of all schools–and especially schools in low-wealth districts–to not provide even a part-time nurse.
Counselors play an especially important role at high schools. Indeed, research has established that counselors are instrumental in building a bridge for students between high school and college–in particular for students that come from families in which no one else has attended college. Such families are disproportionately located in low wealth districts.
In the graph below, we see that a greater percentage of schools in low wealth districts don;t have any counselor at all, particularly in elementary schools that serve grades K through 3. Note that almost none of the schools in high wealth districts do not have an employed counselor. The differences are smallest at the high school level. But the small difference masks the difference in the number of students served by each full-time counselor.
Percentage of Schools with No Counselor by School Level and District Wealth
The American School Counselors Association (ASCA) recommend that a counselor serve no more than 25 students in order to be most effective. This is particularly true when a high proportion of students rely on a counselor for both socio-emotional support and assistance academically and in enrolling in college. Research supports the recommendations of the ASCA.
In the graph below, I present the percentage of high schools with a student-counselor ratio of 250 or less. Because school size impacts the ratio, I have also disaggregated the results by school size. The percentages of all schools that meet the student-counselor ratio recommendation exceeds 50% for only the smallest and small high schools in high wealth districts, Thus, most schools do not meet the recommended guidelines. The percentages are abysmally low for high schools in low wealth districts–precisely the types of schools in which meeting the guidelines is most important and can have the greatest return on investment. Clearly, the Commonwealth has not invested to ensure that all students–and particularly students most in need–have access to a counselor with a small enough caseload to know each student well. This likely has negative consequences for graduation rates and college-going rates.
High School Student-Counselor Ratio by District Wealth
Librarians are a mix between instructors and support personnel. But research establishes that they play an important role in student learning. Moreover, the failure to have a librarian on staff may mean the library does not even exist or is not functioning properly.
As shown in the graph below, most schools in high wealth districts have a librarian. Alternatively, only about one-half of schools in low wealth districts have at least a part-time librarian. Yet, again, students in low wealth districts are most in need of access to a librarian given that such students have fewer books at home, less access to public libraries, and less access to books in general.
Percentage of Schools with a Librarian by School Level and District Wealth
While these simple analyses certainly don’t identify all the factors that are associated with access to the aforementioned school personnel nor do they prove causality, they do suggest that the failure of the Commonwealth to provide adequate and equitable fiscal resources to districts results in lower than ideal access to all of the personnel in this study for all students and some serious differences in access between low wealth and high wealth districts.
Where a student lives and goes to school should definitely NOT determine their life chances. All students should be in well-resourced schools that are able to provide access to educators and support personnel that influence student success. Yet, the Commonwealth has failed in this regard. Despite this failure and inequitable allocation of resources, the state continues to hold schools accountable for student outcomes even when schools do not have equitable access to important inputs. While there should be some form of accountability for schools and districts, there needs to be accountability for our state leaders. I propose that the state should not hold schools accountable or even rank them based on outcomes unless the state is willing to ensure that students, schools, and districts have equitable access to adequate resources.
It is time to make that happen in Pennsylvania!!