This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
A broad-based coalition of rural, urban and suburban school districts, parents and advocates has filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, claiming it has failed to ensure that all children receive "a thorough and efficient" education.
In the filing, plaintiffs asked the Commonwealth Court to compel state leaders to equitably distribute enough funding for all students to be able to meet the state’s prescribed academic standards.
"The resources that we collect aren’t adequate to maintain the level of education that the state of Pennsylvania expects from its students," said William Penn School District Superintendent Joe Bruni.
In addition to William Penn, five other school districts joined in the filing: Panther Valley (Carbon County), Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre and Shenandoah (Schuylkill County).
Six sets of parents, as well as the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP, signed on to the case. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) and Education Law Center (ELC) organized the legal challenge.
"The state does not take a systematic look at what is needed to pay for the cost of education, but merely distributes the money that it finds convenient," said Michael Churchill, staff attorney at PILCOP. "That system has to end."
The suit names as defendants: Gov. Corbett, state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, the state Board of Education, as well as Republican leadership in the legislature — Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Sam Smith.
When Gov.-elect Tom Wolf takes office, he’ll become a defendant in the case, as will his education secretary.
In the official filing, ELC and PILCOP contend that the state "drastically underfunds school districts across the commonwealth and discriminates against children on the basis of the taxable property and household incomes in their districts."
The Corbett administration believes education spending is not a matter for the courts to decide.
"The commonwealth’s authority rests on the amount of state dollars allocated in the annual state budget for support of public schools, and as of 2014-15, Pennsylvania invests a record $10 billion in public schools – the highest level ever," said Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller, speaking for the Corbett administration as a whole.
A similar legal action was taken against the state in the 1990s. The court ruled that there was no judicially measurable standards to decide exactly what the state constitution means when it says the legislature must provide a "thorough and efficient" education.
Plaintiffs argue that view has become obsolete as the state, in recent years, has developed its own core standards and built up a standardized-test infrastructure that specifically delineates academic expectations.
"What differs is that today we have measurable standards of what schools are supposed to teach and what students are supposed to learn," said PILCOP’s Churchill.