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Spending gaps are wider, school conditions worse, petitioners in school funding lawsuit say

They are responding to state legislative leaders, who contend that the need-based education funding formula adopted by the legislature in 2016 makes the case moot.

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

A new analysis done on behalf of the petitioners in the education funding case shows that state subsidies available for classroom expenses in Pennsylvania have actually declined by $155.3 million since 2013, and gaps between rich and poor districts have gotten larger.

The lawsuit, William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al, was filed in 2014 on behalf of six school districts, six families, and two civil rights organizations. Now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, it seeks to prove that the current method for funding schools in the state is unconstitutional because it is both inadequate and inequitable, penalizing students and educators in less affluent areas.

On Friday, the petitioners filed a brief to rebut the position of Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati that the case is moot because the legislature adopted a new funding formula in 2016 and the problems have been addressed. Instead, they have gotten worse, the petitioners say.

In adopting the formula, the legislature deliberately avoided any assessment of how much total money was required to provide a good-quality education across all the state’s districts, but only made new rules for distributing the new basic education aid that it made available. It declined to apply the needs-based formula to all the state’s basic education aid because many districts would have lost money while others, including Philadelphia and William Penn, would have received more.

Right now, the new formula applies to only 7.6 percent of state aid and just 1.4 percent of total state education funding, including money contributed by local districts and other sources.

Because of this, the legislative action did not “replace” or “supplant” the school funding scheme, as Scarnati maintains. Instead, “it enshrined the existing scheme’s inadequacy and inequity in perpetuity,” the brief says.

In addition to the analysis by Mark Price of the Keystone Research Center, the new legal filing includes affidavits from parents and superintendents in the petitioning districts that detail worsening conditions.

“Our affidavits from school districts, parents, and an economist make clear not only that the state has failed to fix a broken funding system, but conditions are actually getting worse, with painful consequences for schoolchildren across the commonwealth,” said Maura McInerney, Education Law Center legal director.

The state has increased its total contribution to education over the last few years, but the increases have not kept up with need. And most of the new money has gone to pay for fixed costs such as pension obligations, which is why money available for improvements in the classroom has actually declined.

“In the years since this matter was filed, the appropriation and distribution of state funds has not significantly changed the disparities between high-wealth and low-wealth districts in the Commonwealth, nor altered the overall levels of funding identified in the petition,” said Price, the economist, in his affidavit. “Indeed, the disparities are more pronounced now than when the petition was filed.”

Price said that from 2013-14 through 2016-17, school district expenditures on state-mandated retirement benefits grew by $2.043 billion, while the state share of retirement contributions increased by only $1.176 billion, meaning that districts had to cover $867.6 million in annual pension costs.

“This $867.6 million growth in unreimbursed pension benefits exceeds by $155.3 million the $501.1 million increase in [basic education funding] payments, $145.4 million increase in Ready to Learn Block Grants [formerly Pa Accountability Grants], and $65.8 million increase in special education funding during this period. In other words, since the petition was filed, the total amount of state funding available to school districts for classroom costs has effectively decreased by $155 million,” Price concluded.

Education increases in the last two state budgets, including the fiscal 2019 budget just passed, lagged behind the “education inflation base index,” according to Price’s affidavit, meaning that, since the new formula was enacted, “Pennsylvania school districts, including the petitioner districts in this case, have seen money flow out of their classrooms, not into them, unless they had additional local resources to make up for the shortfall.”

That, in turn, has led to widening gaps among districts: The 100 richest districts (of 500) in 2012-13 spent on average $3,058 more per pupil than the 100 poorest; by 2016-17 that had grown to $3,778 per pupil.

Price also explains the yawning gaps in property wealth and local taxing capacity among the state’s richest and poorest districts. For example, New Hope-Solebury has available $1.68 million per weighted student in property wealth, while the Reading School District has just $49,803. In other words, when also factoring in the formula’s own determination of need, New Hope has almost 34 times more wealth available than Reading.

“The state does not come remotely close to closing those disparities,” Price said.

Other affidavits from parents and superintendents describe austerity measures and inadequacies in their schools.

For example, William Penn Superintendent Jane Ann Harbert said the district “repeatedly makes choices based on what we can afford … rather than what our students need.” It has eliminated teaching positions, resulting in increased class size, after state budget cuts “and we were never able to restore those positions.” And although the high school’s track team competes at the championship level, “we cannot host track meets at any of our schools because our facilities do not meet the basic athletic requirements.”

Parent Tracey Hughes of the Wilkes-Barre School District tells the court that her son cannot bring home books to study or do homework, the books they have are old and outdated, facilities are in bad condition, and there are no librarians.

The petitioners are represented by the Public Interest Law Center, the Education Law Center, and the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP. The districts involved the suit are William Penn, Lancaster, Wilkes-Barre Area, Greater Johnstown, Panther Valley, and Shenandoah Valley. One Philadelphia parent is among the individual petitioners.

Legislative leaders have until Aug. 5 to reply to this latest filing.

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