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Ask the average Philadelphian what their top concern is and they’re likely to say education.

The city has become a battleground for debates over fair and sufficient funding for public schools. At the forefront of that debate is what many consider debilitating cuts to education made by Gov. Tom Corbett.

In 2011, Corbett’s first year in office, the governor cut $1 billion from state aid to public education. In Philadelphia, the result was fewer teachers, counselors and aides, increased class sizes and schools stripped of extracurricular programs like music and art.

But, education is a statewide issue as well.

In June 2013, Public Citizens for Children and Youth conducted a poll of Pennsylvania voters, which showed that the electorate “saw the restoration of the cuts as [being as] important as jobs, which is not something that happens typically in polling,” said PCCY Executive Director Donna Cooper.

AxisPhilly decided to compare education student spending before and after the cuts. We compared Pennsylvania Department of Education data from the 2009-2010 school year, the end of Gov. Ed Rendell’s second term in office, with department data from the 2011-2012 school year, the latest spending data that’s available from the state. The data covers all of the state’s 500 school districts.

Some key findings:

  • The Corbett cuts did not reduce the overall cost of public education; it shifted more of the burden for paying for local schools from the state to local government.
  • Because of the cuts, for the first time since 2000, spending on education has fallen below the rate of inflation.
  • There is wide disparity between the haves and have nots in the state. Not surprisingly, wealthier suburban districts spend the most on education, led by Lower Merion Township. Districts in areas of declining population and smaller, rural communities can be found at the end of  the list.
  • Despite its well-documented budget problems, Philadelphia ranks just below the state average on per pupil spending. But, the city—like many districts—has had to increase local taxes to try to make up for the shortfall caused by the state.

Now for the details.

Despite the cuts made in Corbett’s first year, total spending on public education has risen slightly but it did fail to keep up with inflation.

In 2009, school districts were spending on average $12,118 per student. Spending per student increased only by about $275 in 2011, when districts were spending on average $12,391 per student. This amounts to a 2.3 percent increase, which is half the inflation rate for that period.

This is a change from earlier years. During the period from 2000 through 2008 spending for education exceeded inflation as the Rendell administration pumped money into the state’s education budget.

Those increases came to an abrupt halt after Corbett took office. In the two years between 2009 and 2011, state support in terms of a percentage of overall revenue that school districts receive was nearly frozen in place.

In 2009, the state gave about $8.75 billion to school districts, making up 35.5 percent of districts’ total revenues. In 2011, the state gave nearly $9 billion to school districts, making up 35.6 percent of districts’ total revenues. It hardly moved the needle.

(These totals include all operating expenditures except for capital expenditures and debt.)

While the statewide average is $12,391 per student, spending by district varies widely. No. 1 on the list is Lower Merion Township, which spent $22,140 per student in 2011. The lowest is the tiny Mt. Carmel School District in Northumberland County, which spent $8,585 per student in 2011.

Of the 20 school districts with the highest per pupil spending, 13 of them are in the Philadelphia suburbs.

While per pupil spending in the Philadelphia School District trails most suburban districts, it is not anywhere near the lowest statewide.

Philadelphia ranks 197th out of 500 school districts in terms of the amount it spends per student. In 2011, its spending per pupil of $12,351 was $40 below the statewide average of $12,391. It was a slight difference.

Above is a chart depicting the three school districts that spent the most per pupil in 2011, and the three school districts that spent the least per pupil. The red line represents the state average in 2011.

A large number of school districts in the state are spending around the same amount per student as Philadelphia.

In 2009, about 37 percent of the state’s 500 school districts were spending between $11,000 and $13,000 per student. In 2011, around 41 percent were spending in that range.

These numbers paint with a broad brush. There are districts in the state—such as Philadelphia—that have been hit hard by the cuts in state and federal spending.

But, overall school districts in the state made up for the freeze in the state share by increasing the local share, usually by raising property taxes.

As these numbers show, the Corbett cuts slowed but did not stop spending on education; they simply shifted more of the cost from the state to local governments. To use one example, Philadelphia has increased taxes three times to help fill the deficit left by the retreat of the state from funding education.

In Pennsylvania, the state is the equalizer between districts with wealth and those without. School districts located in wealthier communities are able to bring in significantly more money for their schools and thus spend more on their students.

For poorer districts, the state is expected to make up the difference between the cost of public education and the money the district brings in through property taxes.

“We are excessively depending on real property taxes to support schools,” said Ron Cowell, president of The Education Policy and Leadership Center.

In Philadelphia, the state does contribute more than the average. More than 48 percent of the district’s revenues, or nearly $1.3 billion, came from the state in 2011. That total was down slightly from 2009 when 51 percent of the district’s revenue or $1.4 billion came from the state.

But inevitably Philadelphia doesn’t have the wealth to raise money locally in the way that surrounding districts can. For example, Cheltenham Township School District spent $17,922 per student in 2011, about $5,500 more per student than Philadelphia. But local funds make up 85 percent of Cheltenham’s total revenue.

The average school district receives 35 percent of its total revenue from the state. When measured against the rest of the country, Pennsylvania ranks poorly in terms of state support.

“Now, what we’re spending is a different question,” Cowell said. When it comes to spending we usually rank 11th or 12th nationally, he said, “But that good looking average is masked by the fact that it is just an average and we have some of the greatest inequality or disparity across the state of any state.” 

Why is it that some districts spend less than $10,000 per student while others spend $20,000 or more? Is the state — in its role as serving as the equalizer between rich and poor districts — serving its mission?

The disparity has raised questions about the level of state support and the way in which the state doles out money for schools. Some, like Sharon Ward, executive director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, say the state needs to take on a higher share of the costs.

“It’s really important that Pennsylvania change the balance between local funds and state funds for education. We do rely too heavily on local property taxes so the state share needs to increase,” Ward said. “The way to do that would be to put in some additional significant funding at the state level that could take some pressure off of local property taxes.”

According to Ward, one way to do that would be to tax the gas extracted from the Marcellus Shale. Another way would be to increase the state income tax, which currently stands at 3.07 percent.

“We have the lowest personal income tax of those states with a personal income tax,” Ward said. “Even a relatively small increase like two tenths of a percent,” would help take some pressure off local communities.

But it’s unlikely that either of those two options will happen during an election year. Instead, many are pushing for a consistent school funding formula that would go deeper than the current aid ratio by looking at variables such as poverty and local tax efforts.

“The aid formula just tells us what properties are worth and what personal income levels are but it doesn’t tell you about the rates at which local communities are taxing themselves,” said Brett Schaeffer, communications director at the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania. “We can use the aid ratio but not as the only factor.”

Whether you think we’re spending too much on education or too little, Schaeffer said, “the truth is we don’t know.”

Ward tends to agree, “There has to be a cost basis for this discussion. Let’s not just pull a number out of the air.”