Law & Courts

Pa. Districts, Parents Sue Over ‘Irrational and Inequitable’ School Funding

By Denisa R. Superville — November 10, 2014 4 min read
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A coalition of school districts, parents and the Pennsylvania NAACP sued the state on Monday, alleging that Governor Tom Corbett and the state’s General Assembly have failed to live up to their constitutional obligation to develop a funding mechanism that will provide a thorough and efficient system of public education for the state’s children.

The plaintiffs, who are represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, include six school districts—the William Penn School District, the Panther Valley School District, the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District, and the Shenandoah Valley School District—seven parents, including some from Philadelphia public schools; and the Pennsylvania Association for Small and Rural Schools.

“Pennsylvania’s state constitution tells us that the buck stops with the state legislature when it comes to public education,” Jennifer R. Clarke, the executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said in a press release announcing the lawsuit. “State officials know exactly what needs to be done, but they refuse to do it. We are asking the court to step in and solve this problem for the future of our children and our commonwealth. There is no second chance for children—they cannot go through school all over again.”

In addition to Corbett and the General Assembly, the lawsuit names as defendants, the state Education Department; acting state education secretary, Carolyn Dumaresq; House Speaker Samuel H. Smith; and Senate President Pro-Tempore Joseph B. Scarnati.

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states without a codified funding formula, and education cuts during Corbett’s administration—the extent of which are subject to dispute—figured prominently in the recently concluded gubernatorial elections in which Corbett, a Republican, lost to Democrat Tom Wolf.

Philadelphia, whose financial woes have been extensively chronicled for the last couple of years, is run by the state and did not join the legal action.

The lawsuit alleges that the defendants have developed academic standards for students but have not provided them with the tools to “meet those standards and participate meaningfully in the economic, civic, and social life of their communities.”

It accuses the state of adopting “irrational and inequitable” school funding arrangements that severely underfund schools across the state, forcing them to rely more heavily on property taxes, and disadvantaging the students who live in poorer jurisdictions. As a result, the per-pupil spending can range from $9,800 in one district to $28,400 in another. And in many instances, the tax rate can be higher in poorer jurisdictions than they are in more-affluent ones.

“This unconscionable and irrational funding disparity violates the equal protection clause because it turns the caliber of public education into an accident of geography: Children in property- and income-poor districts are denied the opportunity to receive even an adequate education, while their peers in property- and income-rich districts enjoy a high-quality education,” they wrote in the brief filed in Commonwealth Court on Monday.

They argue that the state has violated the section of the state constitution dealing with education, which calls for the state to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth” and to finance the system in a way that does not discriminate against children.

In 2006, the General Assembly commissioned a “costing-out” study, which showed an education funding shortfall of $4.4 billion, according to the lawsuit. A school funding formula was established in 2008 under Democratic Governor Ed Rendell, but it was abandoned in 2011, according to the lawsuit. As a result, local districts lost $860 million.

The lawsuit argues that because of the funding cuts, districts are unable to provide students with the basic elements to meet the state standards: Some students are in large classes, with inexperienced or ineffective teachers, outdated textbooks, and insufficient behavioral and social counseling and remediation.

As a result, many students are inadequately prepared to pass the state’s Keystone exams: Over 50 percent of the state’s students are unable to pass those exams, according to the filing.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare the state’s existing financial arrangement with regard to public school funding unconstitutional and a violation of both the equal protection and education clauses of the state’s constitution.

It also asks for an injunction against any funding formula that does not provide “necessary, sufficient, and appropriate funding” to educate all students to meet academic standards and that discriminates against students who live in poor districts.

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.