Chapter 9:
School Districts

An Overview of School Districts

Pennsylvania has 500 school districts. Each district has a School Board that sets and collects taxes to pay for the schools. School Board members are elected by residents of that school district. How schools are provided across Pennsylvania can be very different. For instance, the City of Philadelphia (which is also Philadelphia County) has one school district. Allegheny County has 73 school districts. There are a few districts that have the same borders as a county, but most counties have many districts. In some places a single school district is in more than one county.

The Public School Code of 1949

School districts in Pennsylvania are governed by the Public School Code of 1949 (Act of March 10, 1949, P.L. 30, Number 14). Here you will find, often in great detail, how districts are to be governed, financed, and kept accountable to their communities. Almost any question you may have regarding school districts can be answered with a review of the School Code.

Examples of the School Code are found at the end of this chapter. You can click on those topics of most interest to you for more information.

A Brief History of Pennsylvania’s Public Schools

It has taken almost 200 years to establish school districts as they appear now. As early as 1833 there were efforts to provide “Free Schools” to the residents of Pennsylvania, though only elementary schools were seen as essential. The credit for starting free elementary schools in Pennsylvania goes to three individuals—Samuel Breck, Timothy Pickering, and Thaddeus Stevens. Their work took place from 1833 to 1836.

Early in our state’s history schools were set up by individuals or groups of neighbors. The state did not play a role in education at this time. Often churches opened schools in their buildings. School teachers might open their own schools and charge tuition, though often the teacher was provided meals and a place to stay instead of pay.

Though the Free Public School Act was passed in 1834, the idea was first presented in the State Constitution of 1790. Two sections would provide the basis for education in Pennsylvania.

SECTION 1. The Legislature shall, as soon as conveniently may be, provide by law for the establishment of schools throughout the State, in such a manner, that the poor may be taught gratis.
SECTION 2. The arts and sciences shall be promoted in one or more Seminaries of learning.

This new idea was popular in Pennsylvania and passed the legislature by a large majority. But there was opposition. The more wealthy people did not see a need to education all children. Others feared that the taxes needed to pay for public schools might be too high—and some opposed any new taxes for any reason. The first districts were the counties in Pennsylvania. Under the counties each township or borough was to form a school district. Soon every city became a school district.

During the Depression in the 1930s little money was available for education. That changed with the beginning of World War II when schools were needed to educate and train students who will become soldiers. After the war more attention was paid to public education than ever before. In 1951 a Bureau of Higher Education was created in the Department of Education to help returning soldiers get a college education.

Special education programs that help students with learning challenges began in 1922. The state, through the Department of Public Instruction, set up a division to address students with special needs. Programs were expanded in 1951 when speech and hearing centers were added to public school services. In 1961 the General Assembly also mandated that the Department of Education set up programs for exceptional children.

Public schools are changing all the time. For instance, there are now two sets of public schools in Pennsylvania: schools provided by school districts and charter schools.

The State Board of Education

The State Board of Education was set up in 1963. The Board has two groups (councils) and each has seven members. There is a Basic Education Council and a Higher Education Council. You can read about the Board at http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/state_board_of_education/8830.

The State Board coordinates the needs of the Department of Education, school districts, colleges/universities, and the General Assembly. The Board writes and approves rules for elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, and some colleges. Some of their main tasks include writing academic standards that all schools must follow and setting rules for how teaching takes place in schools.

The Board listens to many groups and educators who are interested in Pennsylvania’s schools. Anyone can attend Board meetings which are usually held in Harrisburg.

Members of the State Board are named by the governor with approval from the State Senate. They serve for six years and will be put on the Basic Education or Higher Education Council, as well as serving on committees (there are nine). For more detail about the Board visit the overview tab on their website.

To find examples of what the State Board does go to the following websites to see the Academic Standards they have recently approved for schools.

The Number of School Districts in Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania has a history of many, mostly small, school districts. The Bureau of School District Reorganization reduced the 2,056 districts in 1961 to 742 by 1967. By 1988 there were just over 500 districts. School Districts can merge or consolidate with other School Districts on a voluntary basis. Partly because of district consolidations the number of school districts in 2014 is 500.

Pennsylvania Department of Education

The Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) is the state agency that oversees school districts. It enforces state statutes and the regulations of the Pennsylvania State Board of Education. It does not make rules for school districts but does make sure school districts follow the laws. The PDE uses Basic Education Circulars (BECs) to communicate with school districts.

The Secretary of Education runs the Department and serves a four-year term. She/he is appointed by the governor with approval by the Senate. The Secretary is a member of the governor’s cabinet. You can find out more about the Secretary by reading Article IV, Section 8(a) of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

How the Department of Education Operates

Most of how the Department of Education looks today was set up in the 1960s, especially in 1966 when many changes were made. A Commissioner of Basic Education (grades K through 12) and a Commissioner of Higher Education was added. The name of this state agency was changed to the Department of Education in 1969.

The Commissioner of Basic Education sets school subsidies (money paid by the state to school districts), and sets rules for building schools, deciding what to teach, and other school issues like attendance.

Higher Education in the 1960s included the community colleges, the state-owned colleges, the state-related universities, and other schools that were run by the Department. In 1983 the state-owned colleges became universities in the State System of Higher Education.

Another major change happened in 1971 when the General Assembly set up 29 regional districts called Intermediate Units. These Intermediate Units provided services, including special education services, for groups of school districts. It would be more expensive for each school district to provide these services themselves. The state pays for most of the costs to support these 29 Units but school districts also pay a fee. An example of services provided by one Intermediate Unit can be found at the Allegheny Intermediate Unit site: http://www.aiu3.net/.

An interesting summary of education in Pennsylvania is provided by Bucknell University. Some points in that summary follow. The complete work, with more facts of interest, is found at http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/edu/ed370/staterole.html.

  • 1818: The first Pennsylvania public school for children of all income levels is started in Philadelphia County.
  • 1831: A Common School Fund is started to raise money to build schools
  • 1834: The Free Schools Law divides the entire state into school districts with residents in each district voting on whether they wanted local schools. If so, the state paid for some of the school costs. The first public high schools begin in the state (Central High School in Philadelphia is the first).
  • 1854: The School Code of 1854 lets School Boards from each district set teacher salaries, grade levels, which students can attend, textbooks used, and what is to be taught. The only state rule is that orthography (spelling), reading, writing, grammar, and geography be taught in every school.
  • 1872: The last school district in the state votes to establish public schools.
  • 1895: The first mandatory school attendance requirement in Pennsylvania says that children ages 8-13 must attend school for 13 weeks a year.
  • 1913: Statewide vocational programs are created to train students in agricultural and industrial trades.
  • 1963: The Department of Education is established.
  • 1971: The 29 Intermediate Units begin providing services to school districts.

How We Pay for Schools in Pennsylvania

There are three sources of public money for school districts. First are the taxes that the school district sets and collects. The second is the amount given to the school district by the state. And third is the federal government which also pays for specific programs. For some districts most of the money comes from local taxes; for others the state pays most of the costs. Usually the dollars received from the federal government are a small part of the district budget.

How Pennsylvania Gives Dollars to School Districts

The state will help pay for some school district programs such as special education or student bussing. There are special programs that come and go as the need for programs come and go. The state also helps school districts pay for the retirement of those who work there.

But the main source of state funds for schools in Pennsylvania comes from a general fund line item for public education. Most of these funds are shared among the 500 districts by use of an Aid Ratio. This ratio is set from three parts: how much property (buildings and land) in the district is worth, how much people who live in the district earn, and the ratio of property worth divided by income. This is complicated. If you want to learn more see Section 2501(14) and (14.1) of the School Code. The ratio is also used to calculate the transportation subsidy (what the state pays for school buses) and some special programs.

How School Districts Collect Taxes

It takes a good deal of money to send one student to school, usually more than $10,000 each year for each student. School Boards need to have the money to pay for this education. They can raise money by setting and collecting taxes. Everyone who lives in a school district must pay taxes to that district.

There are three major taxes: the property tax, the earned income tax, and the local services tax. However, municipalities also collect the same taxes and most counties also have a property tax.

The earned income tax is easy to find. The tax is what you earn times a percent set by the school district. If the school district income tax rate is 1.0 percent and a person earns $30,000 per year the tax will be $300 per year. The municipality where you live usually has an earned income tax, too. You can learn more about earned income taxes (or EITs) at http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/school_district_personal_income_tax.

The property tax provides most of the funds collected in Pennsylvania to pay for schools. This tax is hard to understand because it has many parts. But it begins with the county where you live. The county assesses every property. To assess means to place a dollar amount on the value of your property (usually a house or business, but it can also be a piece of land, a cabin, or other property). This assessment will change with time because property values also (usually) change over time. The school district then assigns a millage rate. A mill is $1 for every $1,000 a property is assessed. If the county says a house is assessed at $80,000 than one mill is worth $80 ($80,000 divided by $1,000). If the school district property tax is set at 8 mills then the owner pays $80 (one mill) times 8 mills, or $640 each year. The county and the municipality where you live also have a property tax. It is set the same way school districts set this tax.

A good source for more information is http://www.newpa.com/local-government/tax-information/act32/school.

The Pennsylvania School Code

The School Code is a long document that covers the rules for almost everything Pennsylvania schools do. You can read the Public School Code at http://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/US/HTM/1949/0/0014..HTM. Some major sections are highlighted below. Please click on the link next to the section to see more information.