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From the archives: Lawsuit charges state with racism

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

The Notebook was launched in 1994 as a newspaper committed to ensuring quality and equity in Philadelphia public schools. We are celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first publication this spring. We are featuring an article from our archives each week, shedding light on both the dramatic changes that have taken place in public education and the persistent issues facing Philadelphia’s school system.

From the Summer 1998 print edition, this story describes the racial bias lawsuit that was filed but later withdrawn by the District as part of the state takeover agreement in 2001:

by Lynette Hazelton

Send your child to any school within the city and the average per pupil expenditure is $6,800. Transfer to one of the 61 school districts outside the city and the spending increases – the average is $8,800.

For years, the School District has claimed that this funding disparity unfairly deprives Philadelphia students of a better education. Now, in their ongoing efforts to close the gap between suburban and urban schools, the District is breaking new legal ground by charging that the state’s funding formula is more than just unequal – it’s racially discriminatory.

The School District of Philadelphia has filed suit in U.S. District Court charging the state with civil rights violations. The District contends that the state has deliberately created and maintained a system of funding that leaves Philadelphia and other districts with large minority populations with significantly fewer dollars than predominantly white districts.

"It is a big case," said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, one of the law firms working on the case. "We are going to federal court saying that minority students in a district can’t get a fair deal out of the state and their rights must be protected by the federal government."

A civil rights issue

This move to federal court on civil rights grounds is the first of its kind in the country and will be closely watched by other states. No municipality has ever successfully sued a state over school funding in federal court, largely because of a U.S. Supreme Court 1973 ruling that the failure of states to provide equitable funding does not violate the U.S. Constitution and that school funding issues belong in state court.

But this lawsuit is filed under Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits any recipient of federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color or national origin.

In addition to the District and the City, the plaintiffs include a multiracial group of parents along with the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity, NAACP, ASPIRA, Parents’ Union, Parents United for Better Schools, Citizens Committee for Public Education, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The District argues that its claim is strongly supported by numbers showing that as the number of minority students in the school district increases, the amount of financial support from the Commonwealth decreases. Philadelphia, with a larger concentration of minority students than any of the other 501 districts in the state, is the most adversely affected by such a formula, District lawyers claim.

District lawyers also say the funding disparity is not simply due to poverty. They point to a study comparing Pennsylvania school districts with the same level of poverty, which found that school districts with a higher minority enrollment receive less state aid – on average $52.88 less per student for each 1 percent increase in minority enrollment.

Equity in funding

If Philadelphia students were funded on par with the average suburban student, the impact would be tremendous and immediate, the District says. An average third-grade classroom in Philadelphia would receive an additional $60,000 to spend towards its education. The money could go toward an experienced teacher, thus decreasing class size; sets of books for reading; and computers in the classroom.

Funding inequities in Pennsylvania have spawned several recent lawsuits. But recent District efforts to equalize funding have met with little support from the Commonwealth Court and the General Assembly.

In March, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court refused to hear another District suit challenging state funding inequities. The court cited a lack of jurisdiction and said the issue was one for the state legislature.

Mayor Ed Rendell has said the case would be appealed.

The District is awaiting a decision in the District ‘s 27-year-old desegregation case. The state Supreme Court is reviewing Commonwealth Judge Doris Smith’s ruling ordering the state to provide Philadelphia with at least $45 million for school improvements.

The state legislature has been hostile toward increased funding for the Philadelphia schools. The state contends that the District receives more than its share since 18 percent of the state’s "basic education subsidy" goes to Philadelphia, although the city has only 12 percent of the state’s student population.

Advocates for Philadelphia respond that the state’s basic education subsidy does not include a number of educational programs such as special education. If the overall state funding for schools is considered and not just the basic subsidy, Philadelphia’s share is only 14.6 percent. This is inadequate, advocates say, given Philadelphia’s high poverty rate and weak property tax base.

A recent study by the newspaper Education Week and the Pew Charitable Trusts gave Pennsylvania a grade of C-minus on funding equity, placing it in the bottom half of states nationally in how fairly resources are distributed to schools.

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