HARRISBURG — A new study concludes that a state effort to target funding to lagging school districts did not reduce disparities in student achievement and per-pupil spending.
Under the plan, which is no longer in effect, the state sent additional money to school districts that were spending less than what a formula determined was adequate based on number of students and level of poverty, among other factors. The increases in state aid began in 2008 and were planned to continue for six years but ended after three.
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and Georgia State University concluded in a study published this month in the National Tax Journal that the payments Pennsylvania sent to these districts did not reduce the gaps in spending or student achievement that separate wealthy and poorer districts.
The study has drawn scrutiny from some observers of the state’s education funding system, who questioned aspects of its conclusions.
The research found that districts that received the most money under the plan — generally poorer school districts — on average decreased their “property tax effort” (calculated using a formula that divides the taxes a district collects by its market value of taxable property) compared to that of wealthier districts so that the gap in education spending by poor and wealthy districts did not shrink.
“This is equalization aid,” said Matthew Steinberg, an assistant professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education and the study’s lead author, in an interview. “The whole purpose of equalization aid is to equalize spending, and that’s not at all what happened.”
The study notes that the payments in question were a relatively small component of basic education funding, the main K-12 line in the state budget.The payments for the shortfall districts with high taxes came to an average of $236 per student in the first year and $479 per student in the third year, the researchers found.
Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center, said that the study’s references to property tax relief are misleading. Of the 92 high-taxing but underfunded districts in the study, only seven lowered their tax rates during the period of the funding law, he said, though the measure of tax effort decreased as the market value of property increased.
Mr. Churchill said that per-student spending increased in the great majority of those districts, and that median math and reading scores increased. (Performance in the more well-off districts also improved, he said, as those districts increased their local contributions to education funding.)
“To imply that the state funding reforms didn’t work is utterly wrong,” he said. “In the absence of those increases in state funding, you would have expected a relative decline in funding by the poor districts and a decline in achievement.”
Mr. Steinberg said the research compares changes in spending between the districts with spending shortfalls and those without shortfalls, and does not claim there was no spending increase for a particular group of districts over the time examined in the study.
Mark Price, a labor economist at the left-leaning Keystone Research Center, said that the findings were not described carefully in the paper, and that legislators might understand it to say that property tax rates fell in high-tax shortfall districts. Instead, he said, three out of four of those districts raised property tax rates over the period by an average of 9.8 percent.
But he said the paper offers an insight.
“A reasonable policy conclusion from the paper is that efforts to close the achievement gap between school districts by boosting state funding should generally aim for school districts to maintain their existing tax effort so as to insure that increased state aid goes into the classroom,” he said in an email.
Donna Cooper, who served as secretary of policy and planning for Gov. Ed Rendell, said too little additional money was distributed to assess the plan’s effects.
“The amount of funding that was distributed to school districts in those years could never have closed in any significant way the disparity or achievement gap,” she said.
Mr. Steinberg, the lead author, sounded a similar note.
“Our paper points to the reality that the modest per-pupil aid that was provided to shortfall districts via [the law] was simply insufficient to make meaningful changes to the spending and educational circumstances of what are disadvantaged, largely minority-serving school districts,” he said.
Republicans in the state House of Representatives saw it differently. Spokesman Steve Miskin said in an email that the study appeared to highlight that Gov. Rendell’s approach to education funding did not work.
“The overall point should not be about more spending, or more money, but about getting the best educational performance results,” he said.
Karen Langley: firstname.lastname@example.org or 717-787-2141 or on Twitter @karen_langley