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Activists preparing lawsuit over fair funding of Pa. public education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

by Jeseamy Muentes

National and state education activists made a call this week for stronger early childhood education in Pennsylvania, and some said they are preparing to sue the Commonwealth over fairer school funding.

The comments came at a hearing Tuesday convened by Democratic Philadelphia legislators.

Rhonda Brownstein, executive director of the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, announced that her organization and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia are preparing to file a lawsuit against the state. Brownstein said the current funding system violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

The hearing was held at the National Constitution Center and led by State Rep. Cherelle Parker, vice chairwoman of the House Democratic policy committee. Also present were the committee’s chairman, Rep. Mike Sturla, and Rep. James Roebuck.

Parker called for an unemotional hearing, likely referring to increasingly poignant tales of how Philadelphia students are doing without such basics as adequate counseling services and up-to-date books and materials.

“When we get to Harrisburg, emotion doesn’t help us,” she said.

David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in New Jersey, called for Pennsylvania’s return to the funding formula devised under former Gov. Ed Rendell. He also called for the implementation of stronger preschool opportunities.

Sciarra said that the New Jersey school districts with high rates of poverty have improved over the last decade. That happened after the state, under pressure from the courts, adopted a formula weighted to the needs of each student that mandates extra payments to 30 high-needs districts.

Sciarra proposed that Pennsylvania follow the New Jersey template.

W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, said that the achievement gap between students with different socio-economic backgrounds could be traced back to age 18 months and that high-quality preschool education achieves better cognitive development and could potentially close the achievement gap by half.

Dianne Piche, senior counsel of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, urged stronger early childhood education, as well as having more highly qualified teachers. Piche suggested looking at the funding formulas set by the District of Columbia and Maryland as well as New Jersey.

Brownstein said the Pennsylvania underfunds its schools and does not fairly allocate the money that it does send to districts. It is one of just three states that does not have a predictable formula based on the total enrollment and economic needs of each district.

Brownstein said that she thinks the time is ripe for another court challenge to Pennsylvania’s funding system, especially with the adoption of the Common Core academic standards that are designed to be more rigorous and demanding.

Pennsylvania has also adopted a new set of exams, called the Keystones, that high school students will be required to pass in order to graduate.

Past lawsuits in Pennsylvania brought by Philadelphia and a coalition of rural schools challenging the fairness and adequacy of the state funding system have been unsuccessful. The courts ruled that is it up to the legislature to interpret the constitutional mandate and determine what level of education aid meets it.

Last year, Brownstein said, a federal commission authorized by Congress to study this issue concluded that a “meaningful educational opportunity requires that states make sure all students receive the resources to achieve rigorous academic standards” and to participate as citizens.

Anything less, she said, "violates our state constitution’s requirement that all of Pennsylvania’s children have an equal opportunity for a thorough and efficient public education.”

Jeseamy Muentes is an intern at the Notebook.

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