Freedom Area High School's Student Newspaper

FHS Press

Freedom Area High School's Student Newspaper

FHS Press

Freedom Area High School's Student Newspaper

FHS Press

A detrimental dollar divide

PA school funding insecurity harms small districts
Calla Reynolds
Funding scale: The state prioritizes adding more to the wealthier schools to balance the scale, when in reality, funding needs to be distributed toward the less fortunate districts. Bringing the scale to an equilibrium is a vitality to maintain a fair, thriving school system.

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” is a statement from the Pennsylvania State Constitution, Article III, Sec. 14. According to the state, systems of education are established with a sense of equity: all children will receive thorough and efficient instruction, funded by the General Assembly. When school funding ultimately favors wealthy districts, the idea of “equitable education” becomes a fallacy.

Public school funding is divided differently every year, but similarly in terms of disparity. Given the annual state budget, the General Assembly is responsible for deciding how public schools will be funded. Pennsylvania specifically relies heavily on property tax revenue to fund individual school districts. In fact, 43.5% of the education budget comes solely from property taxes, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This is approximately 7% higher than the majority of other states, whose budget depends only on 36.5% of property taxes. When it comes to equality, this is a fair system; all schools receive resources via a uniform process. Yet, it poses a problem from an equity standpoint–high-poverty areas in particular.

Pennsylvania does not consider manufactured, or mobile, homes as real property. Hence, when it comes to taxation, they are often taxed as vehicles or personal property. Mobile homes, in the eyes of working-poor families, are typically viewed as a first step into homeownership because this type of housing provides the complete bare minimum at a substantially cheaper cost than traditional homes. The overwhelming majority of those who own mobile homes–71%–even stated that their main motive for purchase was affordability. Taxes on manufactured homes are not necessarily cheaper than those on traditional housing, however. Despite being the more affordable option on the housing market, when taxed as personal property, living in manufactured homes gets costly. Worst of all, taxes paid on these homes do not contribute to the local school district since personal property taxes do not have the same coverage as real property. 

Additionally, families who rent houses do not directly pay the same property taxes as homeowners. Landlords, the people who own the homes of their tenants, are the ones responsible for covering these expenses. More often than not, landlords determine the monthly charge for their tenants based on how high the property taxes are. Fortunately, renters do pay school taxes, but indirectly through their landlords. Unfortunately, affordable rental options for less fortunate families are scarce. Most of the affordable places for rent are often not quality in size nor in an economically-thriving neighborhood. Size and location, in this situation, lower the overall value of the home, which lowers the property taxes paid. 

Renting or owning a manufactured home are two of the most common housing possibilities for low-income families, and coincidentally, they are two possibilities that do not have as great of a financial benefit to local schools. 

Finances correlate with the quality of academic opportunities provided by schools. A lack of sufficient funding, which is largely due to a lack of sufficient school tax, limits the resources necessary for all students to academically succeed. The unjust system of payment has long-term, detrimental impacts on the educational future of these students as well. According to ScienceNews, poverty-stricken schools are about four years behind the academic level of high-income schools. For poor students who aim to pursue higher education, they are burdened with inadequate resources to thrive in college-level institutions. 

“More funding would help provide additional enrichment opportunities for students,” Ms. Michelle Micija, a member of the Freedom Board of Directors, said. “More funding would ensure that our students continue to receive the very best education.”

Less fortunate families are, essentially, tied into a continuous loop of poverty. And there is not much effort on the part of the state to change this glaring issue. For example, in spite of the state constitution, court involvement in school finances in Pennsylvania is unclear, as stated by the Education Law Center. In fact, two major cases–Marrero v. Commonwealth of PA and PA Association of Rural and Small Schools v. Commonwealth of PA–resulted in an absolute disregard for the state’s law on public education, which established, in essence, a promise for an equitable education.

For schools like Freedom, the mere absence of care on a state level is impactful. Freedom is a widespread district, covering Freedom, Conway, New Sewickley, Rochester and even a few Zelienople zip codes. Despite this, it is still a considerably small school. Across the elementary, junior high and high schools, there are only around 1,200 students. According to U.S. News, 36% of students are economically troubled. That is approximately 432 out of the 1,200. The majority of the economically troubled either rent or reside in a trailer park. Considering that just 3.6% of the district’s funding is from the federal level, 96.4% of Freedom’s revenue is generated from a local and state system of disparity—property tax. With nearly one-third of the student population possibly not paying property tax or paying little property tax, Freedom is at an incredible disadvantage, despite being a widespread district.

“Lack of funding is something that many districts battle, and Freedom is no exception,” Micija said. “Because the board is charged with being fiscally responsible, updates have to be carefully budgeted and planned, based on fund availability. It would be wonderful to make repairs and renovations as needed, without budgetary restrictions, but that’s not possible.”

There are clear and simple alternatives to the current detrimental system of school funding. For starters, a clear and consistent plan for funding is vital. Federal government involvement in maintaining schools could make this possible. Public education is essential to every functioning society, and it is absolutely vital to American democracy. Therefore, it should be treated more like a public investment than it currently is. State governments alone are not entirely capable of gathering the necessary financial resources to fairly distribute amongst their schools. With intervention on a federal level, investments suited to the proportions of the school’s problems can be possible. These funds would contribute to developing a robust schooling system by further improving the quality of education in every community.

Equitable education is not possible without an equitable distribution of financial resources. Considering the current inconsistent, unclear and unjust means of funding, the gap between low-poverty and high-poverty schools will continue to worsen. Change is vital for the sake of financially devastated families, and with a better funding system, change is reachable.