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Published in Print: October 13, 1999, as Pa. High Court Throws Out Two School Funding Lawsuits

Pa. High Court Throws Out Two School Funding Lawsuits

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The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has all but shut the door on two lawsuits challenging the state's school funding system, ruling that the issue belongs in the legislature and not the courts.

Both suits argued that the school aid formula violates the state constitution's requirement that the legislature provide "a thorough and efficient system of public education."

One was filed by Philadelphia city schools and local citizens' groups in 1997. The other, by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, or PARSS, dated to 1990.

In a brief opinion Oct. 1, Chief Justice John P. Flaherty concurred with lower-court rulings in both cases, finding that the lawsuits were "nonjusticiable." The unanimous court did not order lawmakers to come up with a fiscal remedy, as courts in other states have done.

Gov. Tom Ridge hailed this month's ruling. He noted that the state's poorest students now get nearly $4,500 each in annual state aid, while the wealthiest get less than $380.

"Let's put an end to fighting battles in the courtroom and work together to teach our kids in the classroom," the Republican governor said in a written statement. "Pennsylvania needs education reform, not more lawsuits."

'Complete Victory'

Representatives for the plaintiffs were already looking ahead to new strategies for action in the legislature as well as possible federal lawsuits.

"It's a complete victory for the state," said Michael Churchill, a lawyer for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which had joined the 215,000-student city system in the case. "It's not that anybody said what they're doing is right, but that they won't be held accountable."

He pointed out that while poor students may get more state dollars, the property-tax-based system of paying for local schools yields wide disparities in per-pupil funding from district to district, from as low as $4,300 a year to $13,500.

Joseph Bard, the executive director of PARSS, said the group may consider a federal lawsuit, but conceded that its best hope may lie elsewhere.

"We haven't gotten a court decision, and we're not going to get one, so the onus is on the legislature and the governor," said Mr. Bard, who said he may seek a grassroots effort to amend the state constitution.

In a case of ironic timing, he and other education advocates had a chance to air their grievances last Thursday at a rare joint session of the legislature on school finance.

Speakers from Pennsylvania and around the country testified on taxes and the problems of rural, urban, and suburban school aid.

"The court case means that there is more of an impetus to do something," said Paula Hess, the executive director of the House education committee. "All we've really talked about is special education, but we lost sight of overall school funding."

Vol. 19, Issue 7, Page 22

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