School district lawsuit over state funding goes to trial

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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) – A lawsuit that could lead to drastic changes in how Pennsylvania funds public education is tried Friday in a Harrisburg courtroom, seven years after a handful of districts in the State have gone to court for the first time to challenge a system they consider unfair.

The case centers on the disparities in spending among Pennsylvania’s 500 districts and the relatively small percentage of K-12 education that is paid for by the state government – plaintiffs say it is around 38 %, compared to 47% nationally. The spending figures and test results are part of a dizzying array of statistics and studies expected as evidence. The trial could last until January.


The plaintiffs, a handful of districts in neighborhoods with comparatively lower land values ​​and family incomes, argue that the reliance on property taxes and what they see as inadequate state subsidies means wealthier districts spend much more per student, calling it a “have-and-have-not system”. The result is that underfunded districts are more likely to have larger class sizes, less qualified teachers, outdated textbooks and other shortcomings, they claimed in the 2014 complaint.

But Republican legislative leaders, who are defendants in this case, say Pennsylvania’s education spending compares favorably with other states and student scores support it.

“The petitioners deceptively attempt to create a dystopian view of Pennsylvania’s education system, referring to the alleged ‘dismal state of public education in Pennsylvania’ and warning that ‘without a change of course the future is bleak,’ said The attorneys for Speaker of the House, Bryan Cutler., R-Lancaster, wrote in a pre-trial brief in June. “Such a serious assessment is disconnected from the real facts.”

The trial, which is expected to last several weeks, pits six districts, multiple parents, the state conference of the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools against the governor, the Department of Education, the Secretary of Education. , to the State Board of Education and to the highest ranking. Republican leaders in the House and Senate.

Pro Tempore Senate Speaker Jake Corman, R-Center, one of the defendants, said in a statement last week that the legislature has consistently “met our constitutional mandate to provide a comprehensive and effective system of public education.” .

He said the most recent budget increased K-12 education spending by $ 300 million, and noted that the state had received billions in pandemic relief funds intended for schools.

“Pennsylvania currently ranks 7th in the country in per-student spending on education, and school districts sit on reserves totaling approximately $ 4 billion,” Corman said. “The idea that the legislature does not properly support public schools is patently false. “

Lawyers for Cutler, another defendant, wrote in a June filing that disparities in school spending “are not due to the state spending an unusually (let alone unconstitutional) amount of money on education in schools. low-income districts, but rather because some high-income districts simply have chosen to collect and spend large amounts of local income to support their public schools.

The lawsuit does not seek a specific dollar amount or a particular way to fund schools. Whichever camp prevails, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is very likely.

Spokeswoman for Democratic Governor Tom Wolf said the administration had made efforts to increase funding for schools, but said it was still not enough to address “the various challenges schools are facing” .

“We recognize that the current school funding system results in some districts having significantly lower allocations per pupil than for pupils in other districts, resulting in inequalities in the current system,” said Beth Rementer, press secretary at Wolf.

Mimi McKenzie of the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said a ruling in their favor that the existing funding scheme is unconstitutional would bring the issue to the legislature with the court’s advice on what lawmakers should do .

“And the direction will be that you can’t have these big disparities between districts,” McKenzie told reporters late last week. “That you need to provide resources so that districts can prepare children for college and for careers. That you can’t have a system that relies so much on local wealth so that our districts are underfunded, they can’t even get out of this situation because they already pay relatively high taxes.

In July, plaintiffs hailed a ruling by Presiding Judge, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, which allows them to prove that the existing system results in racial discrimination or has a disparate impact on racial or ethnic groups in terms of academic achievement. or what she called the “spending gaps”.

She rejected Cutler and Corman’s arguments that this topic should be banned because the original lawsuit complaint did not contain explicit allegations of racial discrimination. Jubelirer sided with the plaintiffs saying that racial data reflects the realities of the system and that the data is needed to analyze its fairness.

Districts and other complainants argue that inadequate state support violates the state constitution’s education clause, which requires lawmakers to “ensure the maintenance and support of a comprehensive and effective system. public education ”. They also cite the constitution’s equal protection clause, claiming that the system represents irrational discrimination against children in districts with fewer financial resources.

The case was dismissed by the Commonwealth Court, ruling that funding schools was a political issue that should not be resolved in the courts, but was revived in 2017 by the state’s Supreme Court.

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