The principle behind public education is equity. Public schools should provide children with the opportunity to learn despite their socioeconomic background. However, when it comes to equity about funding for public education, there are two main areas of concern: the first being the distribution of school funding. Specifically, the levels of school resources allocated to different communities and the resulting impacts. This area has been long explored and researched, and it has been concluded that high-poverty communities have less local and state funding despite these students requiring more resources to academically succeed.
The other area of concern is less researched and has to do with how fairly the funding is sourced, specifically local funding. Local funding makes up about 45% of public school revenue in the United States. The primary source of local funding is from residential property taxes.
Residential property tax revenue is derived from the property value and the property tax rate. Given two districts with the same tax rate, a district where the property value is higher will generate more funding. As a result, wealthier districts could afford to have lower tax rates while poorer districts face the pressure of a higher tax rate.
A recent study was done on 18 states, including states like Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, etc. The results showed that Pennsylvania had one of the highest average property tax rates, and there was no consistent correlation between a district’s affluence and property tax rate. It was also found that there is a regressive tax system, as people in the bottom 25 percent – measured by property value, household income, etc. – pay higher tax rates that those in the middle 50 and top 25 percent.
The study also found that Pennsylvania is not appropriately taxing non-residential properties, like commercial, industrial, and agricultural, and therefore is missing out on a local tax revenue stream from a tax base that can financially support it.
People like Larry Feinberg, who is the part of the Keystone Education Coalition and on the board of Haverford Township, say that the biggest factor of high property taxes is due to underfunding from the state. Pennsylvania funds 37 percent of public education costs, where the nation’s average is almost 50 percent.
On top of that, for the past two decades, Pennsylvania has not had any type of education funding formula. This formula would take into account the circumstances of each district, like changes in enrollment sizes, local district wealth, concentrated poverty, etc., to set guidelines for local tax payments. It was only until this past year that Pennsylvania has adopted a new funding formula. However, the formula only applies to new education aid, and therefore will take decades to make up for the past inequity in spending. Furthermore, Pennsylvania lawmakers don’t believe in allocating more resources to poorer districts. Rather, they believe that things like poor test scores and wasteful spending justifies less resources.