From 2008 to 2011, Pennsylvania enacted Act 61, an adequacy-based reform that attempted to align per pupil spending for students across the state’s 500 public school districts. It provided additional state aid to districts spending below state-determined adequacy targets.
Although the funding ceased earlier than planned with a new gubernatorial administration, Matthew Steinberg and Rand Quinn, both assistant professors at Penn’s Graduate School of Education (GSE) knew the effort was important to study.
“We’re talking about public resources going to public education, so of course it’s of great importance,” says Steinberg. “Obviously resources are scarce, so it’s necessary to understand the implications of a public investment that the state makes and how that improves the opportunities for local school districts.”
Steinberg and Quinn, along with GSE doctoral student J. Cameron Anglum and Georgia State University Assistant Professor Daniel Kreisman, used a “comparative interrupted time series” design to evaluate Act 61. They explored how low property tax and high property tax “shortfall” districts—those that were spending below the adequacy target—responded differently to the introduction of statewide school finance reform, using districts without a spending shortfall as the comparison group. Their study is articulated in a recently published National Tax Journal paper.
They had three key findings. The increases in state aid led high-tax shortfall school districts to reduce their property tax effprt, compared with the no-shortfall districts. This meant the additional state support became a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, local funding. They also determined that the aid to districts with adequacy shortfalls had no effect on education spending, and didn’t reduce cross-district achievement disparities.
“The findings build off of each other,” says Quinn. “With the reduction in tax effort among high-tax shortfall districts, spending doesn’t increase, relative to no-shortfall districts. It is therefore not surprising that the reform effort didn’t have an effect on achievement disparities between shortfall and no-shortfall districts.”
In another effort to address funding equity across school districts, the state this summer passed Act 35. In a Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed, Quinn, Steinberg, and Anglum compare the new reform to Act 61, suggesting there will be a similar outcome.
“The amount of actual spending that came through the Act 61 reform and the amount of new money that is allocated and distributed through Act 35 is modest,” Quinn says.
Steinberg adds, “What’s really lacking at the state level is a sufficient pool of resources to effectively equalize district spending in terms of district-specific adequate spending.”
Steinberg and Quinn agree that Act 35 is a step in the right direction. But, there were flaws in Act 61, and it didn’t live up to its potential, Quinn says.
“The same can be said about Act 35, at least based on what we know now,” he explains. “We’re going to continue following it closely.”