Pa. Judge Dismisses School Finance Case; Districts File Appeal

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Despite its recent dismissal by a state judge, a long-standing lawsuit over Pennsylvania's school funding system isn't finished yet, the district plaintiffs in the case say.

The 218 school districts blame the state aid formula for per-pupil funding disparities of up to $10,000, and they contend that the system violates the state constitution's guarantee of a "thorough and efficient" education.

"We will continue to fight for equal educational opportunities for all of the children in Pennsylvania," said Allan Schoonover, the president of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, which filed the lawsuit in 1990 and has appealed last month's dismissal. "We have pledged to see this to the end."

Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Eugene W. Hickok countered in an interview that the court's decision reflects the state's efforts to steer dollars to poor districts to improve equity.

"The state does a good job of trying to make up the difference in that respect," Mr. Hickok said. State aid ranges from $400 per pupil in affluent districts to $4,000 in low-wealth areas, he added.

Last month, Commonwealth Court Judge Dan Pellegrini ruled that the districts' complaints should be settled in the legislature, not the courts. And, although they disagree with that finding, officials of the districts' association say they will pursue a legislative solution as well as a court appeal.

The group, known as parss, will offer lawmakers a plan this fall that would raise the state's share of education spending from the current 34 percent to around 80 percent statewide, said Joseph F. Bard, its executive director. The plan does not specify how the revenue would be raised.

Judge Pellegrini handed down the much anticipated ruling July 9.

While no date has been set for an appeal before the full seven-judge Commonwealth Court, the plaintiffs are not optimistic about their chances.

In March, the same court ruled against a finance case brought by the Philadelphia schools, saying that the court lacked jurisdiction over school funding policy. An appeal of the Philadelphia case is pending before the state supreme court. ("An Annual Rite in Philadelphia: Hornbeck Duels State Over Budget," March 18, 1998.)

'Low Standard'

"We assume the outcome [of the appeal] will be the same," Mr. Bard said. He believes his group's case will stand a better chance on appeal to the state's highest court. The group already has asked the state supreme court to take its case--Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools v. Ridge--immediately, as well as, in effect, to consolidate its ruling in the Philadelphia appeal with the PARSS case.

Judge Pellegrini's decision was stinging on more than one count.

In a 230-page opinion, he ruled that the plaintiff districts had failed to prove that students in some districts were not receiving an adequate education.

"Not one of the PARSS witnesses testified that any of the children in their districts were receiving an inadequate education," he wrote.

Mr. Bard took issue with that conclusion.

"He's setting a very low standard, saying that a teacher in a room with lights on equates to an adequate education," Mr. Bard said. "Setting that as a baseline, we obviously don't agree."

The decision also contrasts with recent rulings in Ohio and New Jersey, which found state funding formulas there to be inadequate and prompted a flurry of legislative efforts to try to remedy school finance ills. ( "Ohio Voters Reject Sales-Tax Hike for Schools," May 13, 1998.)

"It doesn't fit the trend we've seen," said Mary Fulton, a policy analyst with the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. "We've seen an increase in the courts' willingness to take on school spending and ambiguous language in constitutions."

Mr. Bard was more severe. "It makes me sick to my stomach, but I recognize the vagaries of justice in this country."

It's unclear what, if any, impact the ruling will have on lawmakers.

"If the court system is not going to deal with this, there's no great incentive to go and change everything," Ms. Fulton said.

Shortly after the decision, Secretary Hickok sounded none too sympathetic to the plaintiffs.

"Their job all along should have been to convince the legislature, and not suing us," he said. "But any plan will meet resistance unless the change can make a significant difference. That's the challenge."

Vol. 17, Issue 43, Page 25

Published in Print: August 5, 1998, as Pa. Judge Dismisses School Finance Case; Districts File Appeal
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