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Published in Print: December 15, 1999, as High Court Allows Funding Suit in Pa. To Proceed to Trial

High Court Allows Funding Suit in Pa. To Proceed to Trial

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The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand a lower-court ruling that allows a novel school funding lawsuit filed by the Philadelphia school district against the Pennsylvania governor and other state officials to proceed to trial in federal court.

The justices on Dec. 6 declined without comment to hear the appeal of Gov. Tom Ridge and other top state officials in a case in which Philadelphia officials allege that the state school funding system illegally discriminates against districts with large numbers of minority students.

The Supreme Court held in a 1973 case that the U.S. Constitution provides no fundamental right to an education, and most finance-equity cases of recent vintage have been pressed in state courts based on state constitutional guarantees.

But the Philadelphia case, filed on behalf of schoolchildren by the city, the school district, and assorted officials and interest groups, seeks to rely on a federal Department of Education regulation that prohibits discriminatory effects in programs receiving federal money.

The department's regulation pertains to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin in any program receiving federal financial assistance.

The Education Department is one of numerous federal agencies that have issued rules that effectively extend Title VI beyond intentional discrimination to include so-called disparate-impact bias, in which a program with a pattern of discrimination can be held to violate the law.

The Philadelphia plaintiffs argue in their lawsuit that the state funding system results in less per-pupil spending in the predominantly minority Philadelphia district than in other districts that have similar poverty levels but are predominantly white.

"Pennsylvania's method of funding education yields racially different results," the school district and other plaintiffs argue in court papers.

A federal district judge threw out the case last year, ruling that the plaintiffs had failed to make their case because they could not pinpoint a specific element of the state's funding system that discriminated against students based on race.

'Far-Reaching' Case

In August, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, based in Philadelphia, reinstated the case. A three-judge panel ruled unanimously that the plaintiffs should have a chance to prove their allegations in federal district court.

In their appeal to the high court in Ryan v. Powell and Ridge v. Powell (Case Nos. 99-527 and 99-574), Pennsylvania state officials argued that the Education Department had no authority under the Constitution or Title VI to issue regulations prohibiting disparate-impact discrimination in its programs.

The defendants also argued that private parties such as Philadelphia residents or the school district did not have the right to file lawsuits to enforce the department's Title VI regulation.

The 3rd Circuit court's ruling is potentially "far-reaching," the state officials said, and could lead to more federal cases alleging disparate-impact discrimination in state and local programs receiving federal aid.

The 212,000-student Philadelphia district is facing a $50 million budget deficit this year and has pressed the Pennsylvania legislature and the state courts for years to alter the state finance system.

Athletic Eligibility

Separately last week, the Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from the Indiana High School Athletic Association in the case of a learning-disabled basketball player who won a court injunction to keep playing despite a rule that made him ineligible.

The case involved Eric Washington, a basketball star who led Central Catholic High School in Lafayette, Ind., to the state Class A championship in 1997-98.

Mr. Washington, who had dropped out of high school for more than a year, ran up against the state athletic association's rule limiting eligibility to the first eight semesters after starting 9th grade. He was declared ineligible for the second semester of the 1998-99 school year. The association refused to grant a waiver under its hardship rule, despite the fact that Mr. Washington was diagnosed with a learning disability.

Mr. Washington and the school sought a federal court injunction, arguing that the association's refusal to grant a waiver violated the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both a federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit, in Chicago, ruled for Mr. Washington.

The association argued in its appeal in Indiana High School Athletic Association v. Washington (No. 99-510) that federal courts of appeal have issued conflicting rulings in cases in which learning-disabled high school athletes have challenged eligibility rules. But the justices, without comment, declined to hear the appeal.

Vol. 19, Issue 16, Page 24

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