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Advocacy organizations to take funding debate back to court

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

The Education Law Center (ELC) and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) are preparing to file a lawsuit against the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, charging that the current funding system violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

Rhonda Brownstein, executive director of the ELC in Pennsylvania, discussed the plans for litigation in January at a hearing convened by Democratic Philadelphia lawmakers.

Brownstein said that Pennsylvania underfunds its schools and does not fairly allocate the money it sends to districts. Pennsylvania is one of three states without a predictable formula based on the total enrollment and economic needs of each district, she said.

Brownstein said 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. Pennsylvania has also adopted a new set of exams, called Keystones, that high school students will be required to pass in order to graduate. These new mandates could help establish what the state means by “thorough and efficient.”

“We think we have a very strong case, [but] it’s not going to be easy,” said Brownstein of the lawsuit. “We have to convince the courts they have to take a new look at this.”

Philadelphia and a coalition of rural schools have filed previous lawsuits challenging the fairness and adequacy of the state funding system, but the cases that went to trial have been unsuccessful. The courts have ruled that is it up to the legislature to interpret the constitutional mandate and determine what level of education aid meets it.

Last March, ELC, in partnership with PILCOP, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania League of Urban Schools, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, Public Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center, sent a joint letter to Gov. Corbett urging the state legislature to rectify the funding issue.

“Today’s students are tomorrow’s workers, citizens and taxpayers,” the letter read. “To the extent we fail them today, Pennsylvania’s communities will fail in the future.”