Pennsylvania Supreme Court Reopens School Funding Case

Yesterday the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the rights of Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts to seek redress for inadequate and inequitably distributed public school funding.

Here is the statement from Pennsylvania’s Public Interest Law Center: “The Pennsylvania Supreme Court today delivered a major victory to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students by ordering the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial on whether state officials are violating the state’s constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education. The lawsuit – William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. – was filed in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the failure in Harrisburg to adequately fund public education and provide students with the resources they need to succeed academically. In a sweeping decision, the Court agreed that it has a clear duty to consider the case and ensure legislative compliance with the state’s Education Clause, which requires the General Assembly to ‘provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education’ for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. The Court also found no basis to deny consideration of claims by parents and school districts that the legislature’s grossly unequal funding discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.”

Last February, Bruce Baker, the school finance expert at Rutgers University, collaborating with the Education Law Center, published a report on the 54 most fiscally disadvantaged school districts in the United States. Pennsylvania’s Reading School District made the list.

And just last Sunday, philly.com reporter Maddie Hanna profiled the problems in Reading, which exemplify Pennsylvania’s educational inequality: “Reading remains a prime example of the paradoxes of educational funding in Pennsylvania, the subject of longstanding complaints and a case now before the state Supreme Court… Over the last four decades, the state’s contribution to local school funding has steadily dipped—from 54 percent in the early 1970s to 35 percent last year…. And within its borders, that’s helped build one of the largest disparities in per pupil spending, thanks to its reliance on property taxes.  In the 2015-16 school year, for example, Reading was spending about $6,500 per pupil on instructional costs—compared with better than $17,000 in the much wealthier Lower Merion School District….

The problem is not that the people of Reading are failing to make a strong local effort to fund their schools: “Reading’s school taxes, in a city with high municipal levies and a 3.6 percent residential wage tax, have measured in the top 20 percent statewide.”

Hanna summarizes the troubled history of Pennsylvania school funding—explaining that “for more than 15 years, starting in 1992, the state didn’t use a funding formula, instead sending districts money based on what they received the year before….”  Lawmakers tried to improve school funding in 2008, but a particularly serious blow hit the state’s poorest school districts in 2011 when Tom Corbett became governor. “(T)he (2008) formula was cast aside in 2011, as federal stimulus money ran out, and a new governor, Republican Tom Corbett, took over.  Poorer districts were disproportionately hurt, in part because budget cuts reversed the formula’s effects….”

In 2016, after the election of Governor Tom Wolf, the state adopted a plan for more equitable funding, but while it helped the state’s poorest school districts, the legislature would agree to apply the new formula only to future increases in state aid.  The new formula was overlaid on years of inequality.  In her article last Sunday, Maddie Hanna explains: “(L)awmakers agreed on a formula that allots more money to districts such as Reading’s, taking into account such factors as the number of students in poverty or learning English, in addition to local wealth and the rates at which districts taxed property. But the state’s past approach to funding still factors heavily into what districts receive: The new formula didn’t apply to what the state was already spending on schools…. As a result, the money that schools receive, raise, and spend today is still rooted in a system that over the years veered between formulas written into law and politically negotiated increases, producing wide spending gaps between high-and low-poverty districts.”

In 2014, several of Pennsylvania’s poorest school districts along with parents filed the William Penn lawsuit for greater equity, but in 2015, a lower court rejected the case as “non-justiciable” under the state’s constitution. The case was then appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Maddie Hanna reported again yesterday for philly.com on yesterday’s decision in the state’s long-running fight over school finance: “The court’s opinion—joined by four justices and accompanied by two dissenting opinions—does not resolve the William Penn lawsuit.  But it enables a trial court to hear arguments in the case, which contends that Pennsylvania’s school-funding system violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a ‘thorough and efficient system’ of education, and its equal-protection provision. Commonwealth Court had dismissed the suit….”

Hanna quotes Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf declaring that the new decision, “validates my long-held position that the commonwealth must further examine the equity and adequacy of public school funding.”

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