The Philadelphia Inquirer is standing by an article published nine days ago that twice claimed state lawmakers had “drastically reduced” school funding in recent decades, even though nearly all available data show state funding has increased in terms of inflation-adjusted dollars.
The article by metro columnist Maria Panaritis examined funding differences between urban and suburban school districts and how that difference affects student performance. Panaritis also made the claim that, “State lawmakers have drastically reduced state funding for public schools over the last generation.”
The subheadline also stated, “Suburban schools are fragile and at a crossroads. The time is now to demand a reversal of devastating state funding cuts.”
Corey DeAngelis, national director of research at American Federation for Children, flagged these claims, which he says are false, to his Twitter following of nearly 50 thousand.
Panaritis explained that her assertion about “drastically reduced state funding” was about ratios, not raw dollars.
“My column made the assertion based on the fact that the state share of what it pays for school district costs has dropped considerably since 1974, when 54 percent of what school districts spent came from state dollars,” Panaritis told Broad + Liberty in an email.
“Now the state’s share is about 38 percent, according to the Education Law Center. As I noted in a column several years ago, state officials — through the ensuing decades — did not keep state aid rising at the pace of education costs. They have shifted more of the costs of education onto the local taxpayer in deciding that the state would pay a smaller share of the education budget.”
DeAngelis says both claims in the articles should be corrected. He disputes the idea that “cuts” can be an appropriate label for the shifting ratio of education funding between the state and local property tax revenues.
“The state share of total spending isn’t particularly meaningful when it comes to public school funding trends over time,” DeAngelis said.
“Imagine if Pennsylvania eliminated property taxes tomorrow. Mathematically, the state share of total K-12 education funding would increase, but total K-12 education funding per student would clearly decrease. But based on the author’s [Panaritis’] logic, such a change would be a ‘drastic increase in funding for public schools.’ That obviously wouldn’t be true because total funding per student would actually decrease.
“The author’s current claim that ‘State lawmakers have drastically reduced state funding for public schools over the last generation’ is similarly false. The Philly Inquirer should correct this verifiably false claim, just like they did in December 2019 when their reporter falsely claimed that public education had seen ‘drastic cuts to funding over the last few decades.’”
As DeAngelis noted, the Inquirer faced this situation before in 2019.
A December article from that year captured by the Internet Archive showed the paper making the similar claim that sectors such as education “have seen such drastic cuts to funding over the last few decades.”
After the claim was disputed, the Inquirer changed the article to say, “Despite increases to education funding in Pennsylvania, costs are outpacing those increases for many school districts across the state, and the burden is even more challenging for districts that are less wealthy, like Philadelphia.”
The paper also added this note to the end of the story: “This story has been changed because a previous version mischaracterized changes in public education funding. Education funding has increased over the last decade in Pennsylvania, but costs have outpaced those increases in many school districts across the state.”
The debate over the Inquirer story comes as Gov. Tom Wolf is proposing a tax increase to boost state education funding by $1.3 billion, which would be in addition to the $6.26 billion Pennsylvania school districts will receive via the three Covid-19 relief bills.
Jason Gottesman, spokesman for Pennsylvania House Republicans, said the Inquirer’s assertions were “not based in reality,” in terms of raw dollars. And he stressed that there is another ratio issue to consider.
“If you look at fiscal year 2008-2009 through fiscal year 2018-2019 (the last fiscal year for which we have full data), state expenditures for public schools have increased over $2.65 billion or 29 percent over that period,” he told Broad + Liberty. “Per pupil spending increased from $5,131 to $6,876, a difference of $1,736, or 34 percent. Those increases actually took place while our school population was declining. During the same period total state enrollment dropped by over 71,000 students or four percent.
“Republicans in the General Assembly — and the House in particular — have always prioritized keeping our commitment to funding education,” Gottesman concluded.
He also provided a document “from the House Appropriations Committee using PDE [Pennsylvania Department of Education] data,” to support his claims.
For DeAngelis, this incident is part of a wider problem where real education reform is postponed because these kinds of broad assertions often go unchallenged.
“Peddling this false narrative leads us to do more of the same thing over and over again,” DeAngelis wrote in National Review. “Voters may be more likely to support throwing good money after bad at the system without success if they believe the lie that we’ve been decreasing public-school funding for decades.”
A Broad + Liberty analysis of “Basic Education Funding” data sets from the PDE shows the “Final BEF” state spending increased from $4.8 billion in the 2009-10 school year to $6.2 billion by 2019-20. BEF is a good baseline indicator of school funding, but might not capture all funding sources.
Similarly, DeAngelis says that PDE data show a “68 percent real increase” in state funding for education since 1990.
Todd Shepherd is Broad + Liberty’s chief investigative reporter. Send him tips at tshepherd at broadandliberty.com, or use his encrypted email at shepherdreports at protonmail.com.