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Pennsylvania school system

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School Board Transparency
Public School System Overview
School District Spending
District Transparency Focal Points
Teacher Contracts and Negotiations
District Transparency Checklist
Related Resources
Pennsylvania School Districts
School District Website Checklist
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Pennsylvania Department of Education
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School Board Transparency Blog
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Pennsylvania public schools (prekindergarten-grade 12) operate within districts governed by locally elected, nine-member school boards. The formal title of a school board member is "school director." Pennsylvania has 500 school districts.[1]

Charter schools are public schools operating under a "charter" from the local school district. The school district in which charter schools operate must pay the charter schools a portion of the tax dollars available to the district on a per-student basis. "Cyber charter" schools are "virtual" public schools that educate solely through the Internet. "Cyber charters" are chartered by the state Department of Education and, like physical charter schools, receive tax dollars from the school districts in which their enrolled students reside. Charter school students are subject to the same testing requirements as students in the other schools in the school district, but charter school teachers need not have the same qualifications as teachers in traditional public schools, and often are not members of teachers' unions.

School directors may be elected at-large, or from geographic areas within their school districts. They are identified by party affiliation but may cross-file [add to glossary] during spring primary elections. Almost all Pennsylvania school directors are unpaid volunteers. The only exceptions are those on the boards of the state's two largest cities, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. The school directors in Philadelphia are not elected, but appointed.

Charter schools do not operate under the same organizational laws that govern school districts. A charter school's directors are selected or elected according to the terms of the charter, and are not elected by taxpayers. Frequently, a charter school's directors (or trustees) include parents of students or the school's organizers.

The Pennsylvania state constitution requires the state General Assembly to provide a "thorough and efficient system of public education" to serve the needs of the Commonwealth, but does not specify the means. The General Assembly can change the structure and governance of local school boards. It can also provide for public education in some other way (e.g., by authorizing a mayor to appoint a board for a city's schools). Charter schools are an example of a "different way" of providing for public education.

School revenues, expenditures and budget

Pennsylvania spends approximately $22 billion annually on public education from all sources. About 35% of this money is appropriated by the General Assembly and allocated to local districts by formula. These formulas are partly set by programmatic factors (e.g., funds for "basic education" and "special education" are allocated separately) and by measures of a district's potential tax base. For most Pennsylvania school districts the main source of local revenue is the property tax, followed by either an earned income tax (EIT) or personal income tax (PIT). Local districts have the legal right to levy other taxes, but many have abolished these so-called "nuisance taxes" on various grounds.

Since the passage of Act 1 of 2006, boards must announce during December of the year before a school fiscal year whether they will increase property taxes beyond a formula-determined ceiling or to request exceptions to this ceiling from the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE). Boards boards must publish a tentative budget in time to allow at least 20 days for public inspection and comment before final budget approval. Final approval typically occurs at June meeting.

School boards must meet a minimum of five times a year. The meetings are governed by a sunshine law. In addition, public hearings are required for some decisions with long-term financial implications -- primarily those involving the purchase of real property or the construction of school buildings or major expansion of existing buildings. A recently passed open-records law codifies the right of the public to demand access to public-sector expenditures, including those of school districts, subject to privacy-based and some other exceptions.

FY 2013 budget

In the FY2013 state budget, the state general funds includes $9.34 billion for public K-12 education, $5.4 billion for the basic education funding line item (an increase of $49 million over the FY2012 budget) and $1.02 billion for special education funding, the same as the FY2012 budget,[2]

FY 2010 budget

  • In the midst of state budget discussions, on July 10, 2009Pennsylvania Education Secretary Gerald Zahorchak released a statement saying that a budget proposal released by House Republicans will drive up property taxes and reverse the gains made in student achievement. Proposals by House and Senate Republicans eliminates $729 million out of the state school funding and calls for the use of federal stimulus fund to fill any gaps. “The bottom line is that the House and Senate Republican budgets do nothing more than shift the burden from the state onto the backs of local property taxpayers. That’s a plan that Pennsylvania cannot afford and that reverses all of the academic gains our educators have worked so hard to achieve over the last six years – and which are so vital to our commonwealth’s future economic success," said Zachorchak.[3]
    • In reaction to the statement released by the state education secretary, the Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives said that the statement is simply a part of the "administration's scare tactics and inaccurate propaganda." Additionally, the organization noted that school districts have already set property taxes for FY 2010 and have already approved their budgets.[4]

The cost per pupil is $12,035 the 12th highest the nation according the Census Bureau 2007-2008 report.[5] Costs include maintenance of physical plant, salaries, debt service, special education needs, transportation, and extracurricular activities such as sports and band, as well as textbooks and supplies.

School district costs

Budget data for Pennsylvania's 500 school districts may or may not be published on district websites. By law, a district's proposed budget must be available for public view prior to its adoption. The approximate budget breakdowns displayed in percentage terms in the sections that follow will vary from district to district. It would be unusual, however, for costs in any of the categories shown to vary by more than 5% of the approximations displayed here.


Education is labor-intensive, so personnel costs (salaries and benefits) account for approximately 70% of most school district budgets. Debt service on bond issues (for building construction) are likely to account for another 10% (more or less). Other costs account for the remaining 20% of a typical budget. These includes transportation, utilities, instructional materials (books, computers) and consumable supplies.

The chart to the right (Figure 1) shows how costs are typically displayed.

At the point in time when a school board votes on the following year's expense budget (e.g., in June, 2009, for school fiscal year 07/01/09-06/30/10) most costs have already been determined by prior board decisions (primarily on teacher union contracts or on bond issues) or by the necessity of complying with state and federal mandates, such as special education, Title IX, No Child Left Behind, etc. When approving annual budgets, boards can achieve significant near-term cost reductions only by increasing or decreasing the number of staff positions. Otherwise a board's ability to achieve near-term cost savings on the following year's budget is likely to amount to no more than 1-3% of the budget total. Some possible economy measures may carry long-term costs (e.g., deferred maintenance on buildings and equipment). At other points during a year, however, boards make decisions that have major long-term impacts on district budgets.

Teacher layoffs

The Senate recently approved a bill 38-12 that would allow school districts to layoff teachers and other administrative personal in order to balance their budgets.[6]

School district costs showing personnel categories


A limitation of the display in Figure 1 in the preceding section is that it ignores how boards must actually make decisions on the personnel costs that typically total about 70% of their budgets. In general, boards must make separate decisions pertaining to three different types of personnel. The chart in Figure 2 shows the portions of a school budget likely to be attributable to these kinds of decisions.

  • Teachers. In Pennsylvania, contracts setting compensation for instructional staff are negotiated through collective bargaining. Contract terms tend to set the levels for agreements in other areas. That is, school districts typically feel constrained to provide benefits and salary percentage raises at least comparable to those received by teachers. (In this context, "teachers" is shorthand for all non-administrative professionals -- mainly teachers but including counselors, librarians, school nurses.
  • Administrators. This category includes central office professional staff and building principals. They are not covered by collective bargaining agreements but have the right to "meet and discuss"[citation needed] contract terms with school board committees.
  • Support staff. This category includes secretaries, classroom aides, custodians, security personnel, cafeteria personnel and others. In Pennsylvania they may or may not be unionized.

The breakdown of costs shown in Figure 2 will often be useful in assessing the importance of particular decision points, such as beginning a construction or major renovation program, negotiating a union contract, deciding whether to add or reduce administrative personnel, or setting a superintendent's salary.

State Budget Solutions’ Education Study: “Throwing Money At Education Isn’t Working”

State Budget Solutions’ examined national trends in education from 2009-2011, including state-by-state analysis of education spending, graduation rates, and average ACT scores. The study shows that states that spend the most do not have the highest average ACT test scores, nor do they have the highest average graduation rates. A summary of the study is available here. Download the full report here: Throwing Money At Education Isn’t Working.

See National Chart to compare data from all 50 states.

State Spending on Education vs. Academic Performance 2012

State 2011 Total Spending[7] 2011 Education Spending[8] 2011 Percent Education Spending 2012 Total Spending[9] 2012 Education Spending[10] 2012 Percent Education Spending 2010 Avg. ACT score[11] 2011 Avg. ACT score[12] 2012 Avg. ACT score[13] 2010 Graduation Rate[14] 2011 Graduation Rate[15]
Pennsylvania $130.6 billion $35.8 billion 27.4% $130.7 billion $37.5 billion 28.6% 21.9 22.3 22.4 83.0% 82.7%

Role of unions

Act 195 of 1970 gives teachers the right to organize into unions that exercise exclusive bargaining rights on behalf of their members. Pennsylvania teacher unions may strike for limited periods of time if their demands are not met. Because salaries and benefits for teachers account for approximately half of school budgets (and affect other personnel costs, especially benefits), the outcome of board-union contract negotiations is almost always the single most important factor in determining the size of district budgets and resulting tax levels.

Most local unions are members of the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA), but many (primarily those in urban areas) are members of AFT Pennsylvania. Support staff personnel may or may not be unionized. Administrators are not unionized, except in Philadelphia, where the Teamsters represent school principals .

Act 195 of 1970 generally reflects laws governing private-sector negotiations although the differences between public and private employers can be significant. Act 88 of 1992 ended unions' ability to call strikes without prior notice and limited the duration of strikes by requiring that teachers work for at least 180 classroom days between the opening of school in August or September and June 15 of the following calendar year. These two laws define the legal terms under which school boards and teacher unions negotiate.

Another law relevant to public school labor negotiations is Act 1 of 2006. Act 1 limits the authority of school boards to raise property taxes without voter consent. Although Act 1 reduces the ability of school boards to raise money to cover contract costs, its impact on negotiations appears so far to have been minimal.

Transparency issues in union negotiations

Contracts between school districts and unions are matters of public record. However, these contracts are negotiated by board and union representatives during closed bargaining sessions. In most instances, the terms of proposed settlements are made public only at the time of a board vote. If a board votes on a proposed settlement before the full union membership has voted, the board may withhold information on contract terms until after a union vote occurs.

If negotiations between boards and unions break down, Act 195 provides several dispute-resolution mechanisms. These include mediation, fact-finder reports, non-binding arbitration and (with the prior consent by both parties) binding arbitration.[citation needed] Fact-finding and arbitration (but not mediation) ultimately lead to publication of the proposals submitted to fact-finders or arbitrators by board and union negotiators. Whenever a strike occurs or is threatened, school boards and unions often publish selected portions of their proposals in hopes of gaining public support.

Media coverage of board-union negotiations tends to be limited except when a strike is threatened or in progress. This is partly because negotiators on both sides of the table are often reluctant to provide any information on their respective positions. Reporters may not understand when aggressive questioning is appropriate (particularly questions addressed to board spokespeople as elected officials). Neither reporters nor editors can reasonably be expected to know enough about contract issues to challenge potentially misleading generalizations, much less to ask follow-up questions to clarify complex issues. Accordingly, transparency advocates may wish to provide local media with something like a "reporters and editors guide to school contract negotiations."

Publishing contracts

Either the board or the union may legally publish its own or the other party's proposed settlement terms at any time during the negotiating process, but neither party is required to do so. Advocates of greater transparency[16] say that boards should publish their formal offers and unions should publish their formal demands at the outset of negotiations. It has been noted that this argument applies only to proposals of record. To encourage open discussion and exploration of possible compromise offers, face-to-face negotiations would continue to be conducted in private, without observers from the public or news media.

Opponents of this position characterize it as "negotiating in public." They contend that early disclosure of bargaining positions will encourage political posturing and make compromises more difficult. They also suggest that the public already has ample opportunity to comment on school budgets as a whole and that it is unfair to focus attention solely on teacher salary and benefits.

Arguments for greater transparency

  • Contracts with teacher unions account for about half of a district's budget and strongly influence compensation levels for other classes of employees.
  • The negotiating period is the only time when informed public opinion can have any possible effect on the decisions of elected officials. A mandatory public comment period on a budget is an empty exercise if its size has already been largely determined by prior contract agreements.
  • These are multi-year contracts whose impacts cannot be understood by examination of any single year's budget.
  • These contracts have long-term cost implications several times as large as those for building programs for which the law requires public hearings.
  • Early disclosure of each side's proposed settlement terms would reduce the incentive to open with extreme proposals made merely for bargaining purposes. Rather than prolonging negotiations and making compromise more difficult, transparency would lead to more realistic proposals and narrow the range of disagreement early in the process.

Proposed transparency legislation

Legislation to require more public input in school-related labor disputes has been introduced in the Pennsylvania legislature. A recent example is HB 1369.[17] The bill's proponents contend that greater transparency would reduce the frequency and duration of teacher strikes.

Unions oppose any limits on their right to strike that do not include provision for binding arbitration. An argument for binding arbitration is that professional arbitrators are likely to be more objective than opposing parties defending entrenched positions. An outside arbitrator's decision may also give local negotiators a face-saving way to reach a mutually acceptable agreement without offending their constituents. The main counter-argument, advanced by the Pennsylvania School Board Association (PSBA), is that allowing an unelected arbitrator to set half a school district's costs destroys local political accountability and constitutes taxation without representation.

The PSBA 2008 Legislative Policy Council declined to accept the recommendations of one of its committee that PSBA lobby for mandatory transparency at early stages of the negotiations process.[18]


  1. Pennsylvania Department of Education, Education Names and Addresses (dead link)
  2. The Daily American "New state budget increases basic education funding, changes charter school formula" July 4, 2012 (dead link)
  3. Pennsylvania Department of Education, "Education Secretary says House Republican budget will drive up property taxes, reverse gains in student achievement," July 10, 2009
  4. Commonwealth Foundation for Public Policy Alternatives, "Rendell Administration Continues to Lie on Education Funding," July 13, 2009
  5. Maine Watchdog, Education Spending Per Child, July 6, 2010
  6. Philadelphia Inquirer, Teacher layoffs bill passes Pa. Senate, May 11, 2011 (dead link)
  7. "Alabama Government Spending Chart - Total Spending" Aug. 4, 2012
  8. "Alabama Government Spending Chart - Education Spending"Aug. 4, 2012
  9. "Alabama Government Spending Chart - Total Spending" Aug. 4, 2012
  10. "Alabama Government Spending Chart - Education Spending"Aug. 4, 2012
  11. 2010 ACT National and State Scores "Average Scores by State"
  12. [ 2011 ACT National and State Scores " Average Scores by State"]
  13. [ 2011 ACT National and State Scores " Average Scores by State"]
  14. National Center for Education Statistics
  15. National Center for Education Statistics
  16. School Board Transparency Blog
  17. Pennsylvania House Bill 1369
  18. School Board Transparency Blog, PSBA legislative body ducks transparency debate, Oct. 16, 2008 (dead link)