An Annual Rite in Philadelphia:Hornbeck Duels State Over Budget

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Philadelphia school leaders opened a new front last week in their crusade for more money, filing a federal lawsuit alleging that Pennsylvania's education finance system violates the civil rights of children in predominantly nonwhite districts.

The case, brought against Gov. Tom Ridge and state education officials, is part of a hardball strategy by district Superintendent David W. Hornbeck to wrest millions of dollars more from the state legislature.

David Hornbeck

The district has proposed a $1.5 billion budget for the next school year that includes $85 million more in state aid than the governor is willing to pay.

Mr. Hornbeck is refusing to cut the budget to make up the shortfall, and has warned that the schools would have to shut down--probably in the spring of next year--if that money does not come through.

"We're fighting this thing on every front and with every weapon at our disposal," Mr. Hornbeck said last week. "We're just not going to back down."

The new case came just days after a state court threw out a suit the city filed in February 1997 challenging the finance system. ("On Eve of Budget Hearings, Phila. Sues State for More Aid," March 5, 1997.)

That ruling by Commonwealth Court Judge James R. Kelley said the legislature had met its obligations to set up a "thorough and efficient" public education system. It also said policymakers and not the court must define what constitutes an adequate education and how much money is needed to provide it.

Gov. Ridge, a Republican who says Philadelphia gets more than its fair share of funding, hailed the ruling. Mr. Hornbeck, by contrast, called it a shock. The city schools chief said he expected the district to appeal.

David Sciarra, a lawyer in neighboring New Jersey who has led a successful fight there for more funding for poor city schools, said the ruling puts Philadelphia students at a disadvantage compared with those across the Delaware River in Camden.

"You have this ironic situation," he said. "In New Jersey, the courthouse doors are open, but in Pennsylvania, they've now been slammed shut."

Multiple Challenges

Meanwhile, the state's school funding system is under attack from other directions. One challenge has arisen as part of Philadelphia's 27-year-old school desegregation lawsuit, which is now pending before the state supreme court.

Another is coming from a coalition of small and rural districts that wants the funding formula invalidated in state court.

In the federal suit filed last week, the Philadelphia district contends that Pennsylvania's funding system violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial or ethnic discrimination by entities receiving federal funds.

"Having lost on their argument that the system is unconstitutional, now they are alleging that it's racist," said Tim Reeves, a spokesman for Gov. Ridge. "That is a very troubling and offensive allegation."

The suit cites spending gaps both between Philadelphia schools and its suburbs and between school systems that are mainly minority and those with majority-white enrollments. When districts with similar poverty levels are compared, the suit says, per-pupil spending declines as the proportion of minority enrollment rises.

The case, filed by the district, the city, and various other plaintiffs, says state financial support for mostly minority districts has eroded since 1991-92 because of changes in the funding formula.

Attacking a state's school finance system under Title VI is unusual but not unprecedented. In New York state, for example, a pending lawsuit argues that the system there violates both the federal civil rights law and the state's constitution by shortchanging schools in New York City.

Patricia A. Brannan, a lawyer with the Washington law firm of Hogan & Hartson, said she thought the Philadelphia suit was the first such challenge in federal court, however.

On the day the suit was filed, Mr. Hornbeck said in city budget hearings that the district could no longer "play the charade" of making do with substandard state revenues. He said his efforts to reform the district since 1995 will be in vain without greater resources.

Moreover, he said, the state's funding formula must change to address a range of big-ticket items that city schoolchildren will need in the coming years, including summer school, more after-school programs, and smaller class sizes.

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