What Difference Does A Decade Make?

Pennsylvania Sad Legacy: Inequitable Funding For Public Education


By Joe Batory


The school board was engrossed in a night of mundane discussions….members starred listlessly at each other…..then a man popped out of his chair. First, he accused the State of Pennsylvania of deliberate underfunding of public education and the children it serves. He attacked the State’s funding policy as an unconscionable, immoral scam. A maverick Board member? Hardly. An irate taxpayer? Not quite! This flame thrower was Upper Darby’s School superintendent Joe Batory! In an age when school superintendents measure their words with the caution of a driver education student behind the wheel, this guy prides himself on bluntness, regardless of the sting. It’s a professional risk he’s willing to take.


       The Philadelphia Inquirer, 1/29/95



Inequitable funding of public education by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is Pennsylvania’s sad legacy. As a young superintendent of schools in the early 1990’s, my district (Upper Darby located just west of Philadelphia) struggled to survive the destruction of the Equalized Subsidy for Basic Education (ESBE) by Harrisburg’s politicians. That legislative action literally drove my school system to its financial knees as enrollments were rapidly growing and state subsidies were frozen.


The ESBE formula had utilized factors of community wealth and pupil population to drive out annual subsidies to school systems that were both objective and fair. Unfortunately, the growing costs of this ESBE formula to the state budget caused its ultimate demise as self-serving politicians played to the taxpayers instead of the common good. 


Since the destruction of the ESBE formula by the Pennsylvania legislature, billions of dollars have been denied to school districts across the Commonwealth. For example, when this initially occurred in 1992-93, 28 of the 30 fastest growing school districts in Pennsylvania had their state subsidies frozen.  Additionally, many impoverished school systems received only a fraction of what the ESBE formula would have generated. State politicians effectively created havoc at the local level and local officials took all the heat for either raising property taxes or cutting educational programs.


Essentially, state politicians had violated the Pennsylvania Constitution which mandates that the Commonwealth “maintain and support a thorough and efficient system of public education” and they’ve been walking away ever since like they had no part in this evil doing.


Over the years, there have been numerous and diverse education coalitions across Pennsylvania that rose up against the betrayal of schools and children by a bipartisan political establishment without conscience.  All of this was to no avail. 


In a nutshell, here’s the problem and it still exists today: Unlike what has transpired in many other states, Pennsylvania higher courts (filled with political hacks) answer only to politicians and refuse to correct the “equitable funding” issue; Numerous Harrisburg “spin doctors” work overtime to obfuscate the issues, assassinate dissenters and confuse the public; and  the news media continues to fail miserably in its prime mission of effective communication regarding this travesty.



Improving state funding is not now and has never been an issue of suburban vs. urban  school districts. More accurately, it is an issue of “rich” districts vs. “needy” districts in terms of community wealth (property and business tax assets) and other resources.  For example, it is community wealth that in in terms of 2005-2006 instructional expenses allows Lower Merion to spend $11,406 per pupil and Radnor to spend $10.322 per pupil while Philadelphia spends only $5219 per pupil. This of course is an outrage of inequity (that the ESBE formula once worked to address).  And note well that the Upper Darby School District is spending only $5502 this year in instructional expense per student this year which makes it much more allied with Philadelphia than its affluent suburban neighbors. All of this adds up to a disgraceful state of inequitable funding regarding public education in Pennsylvania.


For many years, I fought bitterly and publicly with the state’s elected officials. As a result, to this day, I have lost all faith or belief in the politicians of Harrisburg. I am a terrible cynic about state government who has made lots of political enemies, but I’m proud of it!  As I lecture on the “politics of education” in graduate schools these days, students wonder at how I survived. So do I!  One thing is for sure: I will always sleep well and eventually go to my death bed in peace because my voice is on the record against the Commonwealth’s political betrayal of its children and its schools.


 Posted Feb. 14, 2006


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