This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
People who have just started following the lawsuit filed in 2014 that seeks to overturn Pennsylvania’s school funding system will have plenty more time to get familiar with the facts before the trial – more than a year, in fact.
Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer has scheduled the trial for summer 2020.
“We’re very confident that we’ll be able to prove to the court that thousands of children in our state are deprived of the education they deserve and that they have a constitutional right to receive,” said Michael Churchill, attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which, along with the Education Law Center, is representing the plaintiffs.
The litigation is known as William Penn School District et al. v. PA Department of Education et al. Plaintiffs include six school districts and several parents who allege that their children are being shortchanged by a funding system that maintains the starkest inequities in the nation between wealthy and poorer districts. Both the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools are also parties to the suit.
Both sides will spend time gathering facts and producing expert reports before the judges hear the case. Fact discovery must be completed by Oct. 4, 2019, and expert reports and their rebuttals must be filed 60 days thereafter.
Then they’ll each have until Feb. 4, 2020, to submit motions for summary judgment, a request for the court to rule that the opposing side has no case.
The plaintiffs allege that the state’s funding system violates the state constitution, which guarantees a “thorough and efficient system of education” that benefits all children. It also says the system violates the equal protection clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The case is not the first litigation of its kind. No prior case alleging that Pennsylvania’s funding system is unconstitutional has gotten this far.
“We are pleased that the court has set a timeline for bringing this case to trial so that legislative leaders cannot continue to postpone and delay,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center. “Every day that legislative leaders fail to act is a day that students are deprived of basic resources, and our children who need the most continue to get the least.”
The General Assembly adopted a new funding formula in 2016, but failed to apply it to most of the state aid distributed to districts, thus perpetuating inequities that have built up over more than a quarter-century. Not since 1991 has Pennsylvania had a formula for apportioning state aid that is consistent, enrollment-based, and based on conditions defining need in each individual district, including poverty, taxing capacity, and local tax effort.
McInerney pointed out that the legislature could move before the trial date to make the funding formula more consistent and fair.
“Ever since we filed the case in 2014, we’ve been advocating to reach trial as quickly as possible, and legislative leaders have consistently tried to delay trial or stop it from occurring,” she said. “So we are encouraged today that we finally have a tentative date for students’ day in court. We should emphasize that there is no requirement for the legislature to wait for the court to rule. They have the power and opportunity to fix Pennsylvania’s school funding system, as they have since the case was filed.”
The underfunding and expansive disparities act as punishment for students in poor districts, the suit contends.
The gap between low-wealth and high-wealth districts in Pennsylvania is the widest in the nation, and over the last few years, it has gotten worse, according to the petitioners. A 2016 brief in the case also found that while overall education spending has gone up, funding for classroom expenses have declined over the last five years by more than $155 million.
An analysis from economist Mark Price found that increases in state appropriations have not kept up with rising costs. Much of the state aid has been eaten up by soaring pension reimbursements and inflation, he found.