School Districts, Parents, and NAACP File Lawsuit in Pennsylvania to Remedy Deficient School Funding

The financial crisis in the School District of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania is well known to readers of this blog.  A post in early October covered the state appointed School Reform Commission’s cancellation of the teachers’ contract to save money on the health plan (along with a review of cuts to Pennsylvania’s state’s school funding that have crippled the school district over time).  Another post after election day attributed Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett’s defeat in his bid for reelection to long-standing failure across the state to support public education.

But the election of a new governor will not directly address the problems of the state’s poorest school districts.  To secure some relief, on November 10, plaintiffs from across the state filed a major lawsuit charging that Pennsylvania’s school funding violates not only the education clause but also the equal protection clause of the state constitution.

The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania describes the plaintiffs  as representing “the interests of children from across the state including those in rural, urban, and suburban areas.” Plaintiffs are William Penn School District, Panther Valley School District, School District of Lancaster, Greater Johnstown School District, Wilkes-Barre Area School District, Shenandoah Valley School District, seven parent plaintiffs on behalf of children enrolled in one of these districts or the School District of Philadelphia, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. Legal representation will be from the Education Law Center-Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

An update from attorney Molly Hunter (at the Education Law Center in New Jersey) traces the history behind the new Pennsylvania lawsuit: “The commonwealth has known for nearly a decade that Pennsylvania’s schools are badly underfunded.  In 2006, the State Board of Education conducted a comprehensive statewide costing-out study to determine the ‘basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the State’s academic standards and assessments.’ The study concluded that 95% of the Commonwealth’s school districts required additional funding, totaling $4.4 billion.  In response, the General Assembly approved a bill that established funding targets for each school district and a formula for distributing education funds in a manner that ensured all students would have the resources necessary to meet state academic standards. Beginning in 2011, however, state officials abandoned the funding formula, reduced funding to districts by more than $860 million, and passed legislation to prevent local communities from increasing local funding… Districts across the state are unable to provide students with the basic elements of a quality education, including sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and staff, appropriate class sizes, suitable facilities, and up-to-date text books and technology.  Plaintiff school districts, the districts that individual plaintiffs attend, as well as many other districts across the commonwealth, are drastically underfunded—some by more than $4,000 per student per school year.”  Hunter explains further that the state has established basic academic standards, but 300,000 of Pennsylvania’s 875,000 students could not pass the tests based on the standards. “Thus, by the Commonwealth’s own standards, more than one-third of all Pennsylvania’s children are receiving an inadequate education ….”

In the lawsuit’s Introductory Statement, plaintiffs declare, “Respondents have violated Article III, Section 14, of the Pennsylvania Constitution (the ‘Education Clause’), which requires the General Assembly to ‘provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.’ They have also violated Article III, section 32 (the ‘Equal Protection Clause’), which requires Respondents to finance the commonwealth’s public education system in a manner that does not irrationally discriminate against a class of children.”  Hunter explains that this second, equal protection cause of action in the lawsuit derives from Pennsylvania’s policies that have discriminated against children in poverty: “Per-pupil spending on education ranges from as little as $9,800 per student in school districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in districts with high property values and incomes.”

Named defendants, according to the Philadelphia School Notebook, are Governor Tom Corbett, Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, members of the State Board of Education, State Senate President Pro-Tem Joe Scarnati, and House Speaker Sam Smith.  The new governor, Tom Wolf, and his education secretary will become defendants when they take office.

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