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Guest Opinion

Money matters in public education. We proved it.


Sometimes it’s a good thing that history repeats itself. It’s worth considering when it comes to funding public schools.

The recent release of the public school assessments is a stark warning that far too many students in the state are struggling. Although the results are trending in the right direction since COVID, the test results are alarming. Fewer than half of all students can meet grade-level benchmarks for math and only 54% can do so for reading and writing. It’s certainly heartening that the schools educating the largest share of low-income and minority students are strongly trending up, but these students are still far behind their more affluent and white peers. This data must be a real call to action.

When Ed Rendell was governor and we were state senators, we worked together to find bipartisan support to give Pennsylvania students better-quality public schools. It wasn’t easy and it was often nastier than it needed to be, but thanks to a skilled governor and lawmakers willing to compromise, we worked across the aisle to add a $2.6 billion infusion of state funds for public schools.

Over seven years, state funding for public school instruction increased by 62%. Not surprisingly, the money mattered.

In 2003, when Rendell took office, a quarter of all students were years behind grade level in math and nearly as many were far behind in English, scoring at “below basic” on the state’s annual assessments known as the PSSAs. By 2010, the percentage of students far behind dropped dramatically to less than 15% in math and 11% in English.

Additionally, the share of students performing at grade level or beyond also increased. By 2010 nearly three quarters of all students were passing or excelling on the state’s reading and math assessments.

In fact, in just seven years, nearly 300,000 additional students were boosted to performing at grade level or beyond. That’s far more students than attend even the 30 largest school districts in the entire commonwealth.

To be clear, Pennsylvania’s legislature, with a huge push by Rendell, shifted from a pattern of annual increases that ranged from zero to 2% from 1998-2002 to double-digit percentage increases for seven years straight.

By 2008, Pennsylvania was the only state in the nation to make academic gains across the board on the National Assessment of Education Program (NAEP) and we continued to increase our ranking nearly every year till 2011.

That’s when public schools weathered a nearly $1 billion cut that was slowly restored with more than $2 billion in new funds by 2020. Despite sizable state funding increase, they weren’t enough to cover costs mandated by federal and state laws. As a result, the state’s rankings on student achievement have dropped since 2011.

Although the latest state assessment results should be reason enough to act, the legislature and governor must also respond to the Commonwealth Court order to address the disparity in educational quality across the school districts so that every student is afforded equal access to a quality education.

It’s a tall order and we’ve already heard some sitting lawmakers wondering if money really has any impact on school quality.

There are very few guarantees in life and even fewer when it comes to governmental action achieving the desired results. Pennsylvania has already conducted a controlled experiment to test whether more funding results in better student outcomes. By 2010, the data showed that public school performance rises when they have the resources to help every student achieve.

Every sitting lawmaker’s legacy, especially the governor’s, will be defined by whether she or he responds to the opportunity presented by this historic court ruling by doing what is right for our kids, families, communities and future. It’s time to invest in our public schools and rejoin the ranks of the top performing states. History has unequivocally demonstrated it works.

Republican Robert M. Tomlinson represented the 6th PA Senate District from 1995 to 2022. Republican Joe Conti represented the 10th PA Senate District from 1997 to 2006.

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