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Trial date set for landmark school funding case in Pennsylvania

Funding celebration
In 2018, advocates talk to the press outside Philadelphia’s city hall after a court appearance in the fair funding case now scheduled to go to trial in September.
Darryl Murphy / The Notebook

Pennsylvania students, school districts, and their advocates will soon have their chance in court to prove that education across the state is unfairly and inadequately funded.

On Thursday, Commonwealth Court set a tentative trial date of Sept. 9 in a case originally filed nearly seven years ago by several school districts, individual parents, the state chapter of the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools against the governor, legislature, and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The suit seeks changes in a funding system that has resulted in some of the largest gaps in spending among wealthy and poor school districts in the nation.

The School District of Philadelphia, the state’s largest district, is not among the plaintiffs. The district was under state control at the time the suit was filed because of “fiscal distress” that Harrisburg failed to address.

The current system in Pennsylvania is “unpredictable and irrational,” said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, an advocacy group focused on equity for all students. “At trial we will show that Pennsylvania’s constitution requires that our public school system works for all students, regardless of where they live, their skin color, how much money their family or community has, or what language they speak at home.” The constitution requires the state to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education to all students.

The case will be going to trial as the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the stark gaps in resources among school districts in the state, and as the nation grapples more forthrightly with the effects of systemic racism.

While the disparities have always been obvious, the pandemic has put them “in plain sight,” said Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs along with the ELC and the private law firm O’Melveny Myers LLP.

When schools were forced to close a year ago, the Shenandoah Valley school district, one of the plaintiffs, was thoroughly unprepared to make the pivot to online learning.

Superintendent Brian Waite said many students and teachers in his Schuylkill County district didn’t own computers and didn’t have reliable internet connectivity, while the district lacked a management system for online learning. The 1100-student district is about half white and half Latino, with 13% English learners.

Even so, the district taxes itself at a high rate — fourth highest in the state — to raise its budget, because of its low relative wealth measured in terms of property values and personal income, he said. As the state’s share of education spending has declined as a percentage of costs, more burden has been put on local districts. At 38%, Pennsylvania’s state share of total education costs ranks 44th among the states.

“We gave students paper packets,” Waite said. “We didn’t have those simple things many of the districts that are fairly funded do have.”

The story was similar in Lancaster, also a plaintiff, where 90% of students live below the poverty line. When schools closed last March, “less than a third of our students had access to a device,” said Superintendent Damaris Rau. The district has only five librarians for 11,000 children, and to save on transportation costs students have to live more than two miles away to ride a bus. Many walk.

“We often have to triage how we spend our resources. Do we buy up-to-date textbooks, or do we provide after school programs? Do we reduce class sizes...or do we provide additional summer school opportunities?” When the poorest students are making the greatest sacrifices to access education, “it is not a just system,” she said.

Skylar Armstrong, a recent Philadelphia graduate whose mother Sheila joined the case when he was 13, described how his elementary school was filled with mold that triggered his asthma. In high school, his biology class had no lab and the teacher wasn’t certified. There were too many students in the class and few computers. “Teachers tried their best, but there were too many problems for them to fix,” he said. For too long, he said, “the system has hurt too many kids like me.”

Data amassed by the plaintiffs have shown that the current funding system disproportionately impacts Black and Latino students. Half of the state’s Black students and 40% of Latino students attend schools in the bottom quintile of districts based on what they spend per pupil.

Prior fair funding cases in Pennsylvania, which go back to the 1970s, never got as far as the trial stage as courts repeatedly ruled that allocating dollars for education was a political matter to be handled by the legislature and governor, not one for judicial interference. What constituted a “thorough and efficient system of education” is entirely up to them, a succession of judges declared. That changed in 2017, when the state Supreme Court ruled that this case should proceed.

In 2008, the state did a costing-out study that found districts in the state needed $4.4 billion more to provide all students with an adequate education, but state officials declined to fund it. Then, when the recession hit in 2009, things got worse. Harrisburg used federal stimulus funds to replace, rather than supplement, state aid, resulting in deep cuts in revenue to districts when the stimulus money ran out. This was especially true in Philadelphia, which felt the impact for years afterwards.

In 2015, a year after this lawsuit was filed, the legislature did come up with a fair funding formula that takes into account a district’s poverty level, taxing capacity, and other factors in allocating per pupil state dollars. But again, it declined to use it, deciding to funnel only new educational dollars through the formula, not the entire pot. Today, just 11% of basic education aid is allocated based on the formula while all districts are guaranteed to get at least as much as they received in 2014-15, even if enrollment declines.

McInerney said that 80% of Black and Latino students attend a district that receives less basic education funding than they would if all the money was allocated under the formula.

This time, however, circumstances are different. Plaintiffs argue that the state government has now essentially defined minimum educational standards by rating districts based on student performance on state tests and requiring high school students to take exams in Algebra, biology and English Language Arts before graduating.

While Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, is among the defendants, he has largely backed away from active participation in the case. His proposed 2021-22 budget proposes driving all basic education aid through the fair funding formula and adding $1.4 billion to the pot, enough to prevent any districts from losing money as a result of the redistribution.

The defense is now being handled primarily by the leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly.

“Most of our evidence actually come from state documents and state witnesses themselves,” Churchill said. “It will be interesting to see what kind of defense they will mount.”

Even as it has determined what is necessary to adequately educate all students and devised a formula to allocate funds based on student needs, the legislature has repeatedly declined to raise taxes for education. This is so even though many rural Republican areas, like Schuylkill County where Shenandoah is located, are among those most adversely affected by the current system.

More dates on how the case proceeds will be set at a pretrial conference on June 21.

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