Years-old lawsuit challenging Pa. school funding heads to trial

‘It’s exciting because it will finally allow a court to say that the state has to change what it does in the way it funds its schools and provide [an] opportunity for literally hundreds of thousands of students,’ Michael Churchill, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said

By: - November 12, 2021 7:19 am

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. (Capital-Star file)

Seven years after it was first filed, a landmark case challenging how Pennsylvania funds its public schools goes to trial Friday.

The case, initially dismissed by the Commonwealth Court in 2015 and revived by the state Supreme Court in 2017, pits six school districts, a group of parents, the state conference of the NAACP, and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools against Gov. Tom Wolf, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the Department of Education, Education Secretary Noe Ortega, and the state Board of Education.

The trial, expected to span two months in Commonwealth Court, revolves around the state’s education funding formula, which uses population numbers from the early 1990s to allocate money to the 500 districts across the state.

In 2016, Pennsylvania established a modernized fair-funding formula that directs money based on enrollment, student poverty percentage, household income, and the district’s capacity to raise local revenues. However, it only applies to new funding, maintaining funding allocations based on outdated data.

The plaintiffs claim the state maintains a funding system that discriminates against students in districts with low incomes and property values — arguing that the gap between what low-wealth school districts have and what they need is at least $4.6 billion.

“Our experts will explain that this has been a great cost to our school children in terms of their futures,” Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, a Pennsylvania legal advocacy group, told reporters Wednesday. “In addition, it further deepened the poverty in our low-wealth communities, and state underfunding has hurt our state as a whole.”

The plaintiffs in the case argue that the General Assembly has not done enough to advocate for an equitable funding system, pointing to a federal ranking that lists Pennsylvania as 45th among states in the percentage of school funding that comes from the state.

“That means that Pennsylvania spends 30 percent, while nationally, other states are spending 47 percent in state contributions,” McInerney said.

The lawsuit, filed by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and O’Melveny & Myers asks the court to declare the current school funding system unconstitutional, and order the Legislature to create a new, “well-funded” system.

Michael Churchill, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said the trial is “important for children throughout the commonwealth who are going to finally get the opportunity to tell a story of how they have been deprived of the opportunity of more effective education.”

He added: “And it’s exciting because it will finally allow a court to say that the state has to change what it does in the way it funds its schools and provide [an] opportunity for literally hundreds of thousands of students throughout the state to be able to become college and career-ready.”

Though an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely, the plaintiffs said they are hopeful the Legislature and the executive branch will address the funding disparities after hearing their case.

Wolf, a Democrat who staked his legacy as governor on education, has advocated for running all state education funds through the modernized formula and creating performance standards to hold low-performing charter schools accountable for education quality and spending.

Elizabeth Rementer, a spokesperson for Wolf, looked to financial investments in education and the push to use the fair funding formula for all school funds. However, she said the administration recognizes that there are discrepancies between how districts receive funding.

“While Gov. Wolf’s budget has restored funding that was reduced by the previous administration, this increase in funding has not solved the various difficulties schools face,” Rementer told the Capital-Star. “We acknowledge that the current system of school funding results in some districts whose per-pupil allocations are significantly lower than students in other districts, with resulting inequities in the current system of school funding.”

The 2021-22 state budget, passed by the Republican-controlled Legislature, and signed by Wolf in June, came with a $300 million increase in education spending, including $100 million for the top 100 least-funded school districts.

In a statement, Corman said the General Assembly has “always” met the constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education,” referencing the most recent budget’s education allocation as an example and billions of COVID-19-related funds allocated to schools as part of federal relief.

“Pennsylvania currently ranks 7th in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending on education, and school districts are sitting on reserves totaling approximately $4 billion,” Corman said. “The idea that the Legislature isn’t properly supporting public schools is patently false.”

Opening arguments begin at 9:30 a.m. on Friday morning. And the trial — which is not a jury trial — is anticipated to last through January with Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer presiding.

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