The fight for fair school funding in Pennsylvania is getting its long awaited day in court, and education equity advocates are hoping for an historic outcome.
For years, public school supporters have tried to convince Harrisburg of the justice of implementing a fair funding formula for education and eliminating the wide funding gaps between wealthy and poorer school districts. The legislature’s failure to do so costs taxpayers in low-income districts — Reading, Pottstown, Norristown — millions of dollars every year. The gaps result in fewer opportunities, lesser facilities, and an unequal education experience.
One of the six districts included in the lawsuit, the William Penn School District in Delaware County has a shortfall of $4,836 per student behind the state’s benchmark for adequate education funding despite a local property tax rateof 35 mills, the second highest tax burden among the 499 school districts in the commonwealth, according to the Education Law Center.
The district’s student population is 58% economically disadvantaged and 88% Black and ranks 478th among 499 districts in the rate of students who graduate. Lack of adequate funding and resources denies students the opportunity seen in nearby wealthy districts.
Pennsylvania’s system of funding schools primarily with local property taxes has led to greater revenue in areas that are land-rich and less revenues with a greater proportionate tax burden in poor districts. The discrepancy has spawned the phrase “education by zip code,” meaning that the area where a family lives determines the spending per pupil.
Despite more than a decade of petition and protest by struggling districts, state lawmakers have failed to tackle the issue of fair school funding. Passage of a fair funding formula to weight dollars more heavily toward districts struggling with issues of poverty did not adequately reduce gaps. Legislators implemented the formula only for new funding, not for all funding, and a “hold harmless” clause stipulates that no district receive less than it did the year before. With that clause in place, funds can’t be redistributed from rich to poor districts to equalize opportunity.
Having failed to convince the legislature to act of its own accord, advocates have now turned their focus to the lawsuit, charging that Pennsylvania’s education funding violates the state constitution’s obligation to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”Filed in 2014, the lawsuit is being brought by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, O’Melveny & Myers LLP on behalf of six school districts, seven parents of children in those school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.
Since the suit was filed and has wound its way through the court system, “the gaps have only grown,” Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center said on a call with reporters last week. “Our students don’t have what they need. The system is still broken and the legislature is still not meeting its obligations to provide a thorough and efficient education,” Klehr said.
“A slam dunk would be a court order recognizing the legislature is violating the constitution and that we can’t have these wide disparities among districts,” Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center, said on the call.
The suit is being watched closely in southeastern Pennsylvania where the “haves” in places like Lower Merion and Radnor contrast sharply with the “have-nots” of Reading, Norristown or Coatesville. Pottstown sent more than 50 people on a bus to Harrisburg Friday to join a rally drawing attention to the lawsuit.
The trial will not be swift. Observers expect the case to last at least into January as legislators being sued are digging in their heels to defend school funding in Pennsylvania. Even if the court hands down a landmark decision, appeals will further delay the process.
But the mere fact of the suit getting its due before the court is cause for optimism. Change in how schools are funded in Pennsylvania would be a historic win for children of color, families in poverty and communities beset with a heavy tax burden.
This could be the start of change that at long last provides equality in education as guaranteed in the state constitution. The time is right to make history and give all students in Pennsylvania a fair chance to succeed.
Source: Berkshire mont