The means by which district schools are financed has been a matter of concern dating back to the creation of the public school systems in most states in the 19th century. In the United States, public schools are financed through three different entities: the local school district, the state government, and the federal government. Traditionally, districts have raised money to pay for schools through local property taxes. As one would expect, situations inevitably arose that promoted vast disparities in the quality of schools from district to district based on property values.
The neighboring states of Pennsylvania and New Jersey share one major factor in common; both states have urban and rural areas lagging substantially behind their wealthier suburban counterpart districts in terms of test scores and funds raised through property taxes. New Jersey is home to some of the wealthiest districts in the country, such as Tenafly and Short Hills. Pennsylvania also is home to several areas with high property tax bases, such as Lower Merion and Upper Makefield. Additionally, both states are home to some of the most economically disadvantaged areas of the country, including Camden, Trenton, and Newark in New Jersey, and Philadelphia, Erie, and Harrisburg in Pennsylvania.
The implementation of a new funding mechanism, coupled with judicial oversight, has distinguished New Jersey from Pennsylvania. Equitable funding mechanisms have enabled low-income areas in New Jersey to provide higher quality education to their constituent students. Meanwhile in Pennsylvania, a public school student’s ability to succeed remains inextricably tied to the area in which they reside. While New Jersey has made mistakes along the way, the sentiment is clear – there is support in both the judiciary and the legislature toward improving state funding to comply with the state constitutional mandate of a “thorough and efficient education” for all students. Pennsylvania, and other states using regressive school funding mechanisms, should take a page out of the New Jersey Court record and act to ensure that their student’s futures are not being dictated by the circumstances of their neighborhood.