As schools throughout the region reopen, the gaps in education funding in Pennsylvania are being seen clearly in the pandemic’s effect on learning in low-income communities.
Acknowledging that effect, an upcoming court hearing on a lawsuit targeting the fair school funding issue has been pushed back several weeks to allow petitioners to demonstrate how COVID has widened equity gaps.
The lawsuit alleges the Pennsylvania General Assembly has violated the state’s constitution by failing to provide fair and adequate funding for public education.
The trial was scheduled to begin Sept. 9 in Commonwealth Court, but the date has been moved to Oct. 12.
According to a statement by the Public Interest Law Center, one of the petitioners in the suit, the judge allowed a later date to give additional time for petitioners to show how COVID has affected schools in lower-income communities where access to computers and broadband internet is lacking
The lawsuit was brought in 2014 by six school districts, as well as the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA, and five public school parents to challenge what they view as a skewed funding structure that has harmed the state’s poorest children.
It names the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Gov. Tom Wolf and government officials including state Senate President Pro-Tempore Jake Corman and Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Bryan Cutler as defendants, among others.
The lawsuit alleges the Pennsylvania General Assembly has violated the state’s constitution by failing to provide fair and adequate funding for public education. Pennsylvania is currently ranked 44th in the nation in school funding, providing just 38 percent of the budgets of local schools. The remaining two-thirds falls to property owners in local districts. Thus, local wealth determines school spending levels.
According to the suit, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been on notice since at least 2006 that public education required approximately $4.4 billion in additional funding in order for all schools to meet the state’s academic standards and assessments.
This funding gap disproportionally impacts students of color, the petitioners say, with 50 percent of Black students and 40 percent of Latino students attending schools in the lowest 20 percent of local districts.
This summer, state legislators boosted the funding to poorer schools in a move that some observers saw as a preemptive reaction to the lawsuit’s day in court. The 2021-22 state budget was touted as improving the funding gap, but fair schools funding proponents quickly pointed out the increases were Band-Aids, not solutions.
In a statement on the new court date, Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center-PA, said the impact of COVID on education underscores the importance of addressing the equity gap. “The updated information only reinforces the undeniable reality of Pennsylvania’s school funding system: Students who need the most get the least, because of where they live,” McInerney said. “Students in low-wealth districts were disproportionately impacted by lack of sufficient school resources during the pandemic.”
Fair school funding advocates see the lawsuit’s day in court as their best hope for reform. Proponents won an important victory in 2017 when state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht remanded the case to allow arguments on the state Constitution’s guarantee of a “fundamental right to an education.”
Adding the impact of COVID and its effects on poorer students is now an important aspect before the court. The lawsuit if successful could result in a massive overhaul of how public schools are funded by shifting the burden from local taxes to statewide funding distributed by need.
Pennsylvanians have waited decades for the legislature to fix this longstanding issue. Moving the date a few weeks to allow evidence on the effects of disrupted learning on students in low-income communities was a positive move.
The lawsuit, with the trial expected to last through much of the fall, could change education funding and the resources for schools dramatically. We anxiously await its day in court.
Source: Berkshire mont