Six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools filed suit on Nov. 10 against state officials, alleging they are using an irrational means of financing public education that underfunds school districts and denies students in low-income areas equal educational opportunities.
The 149-page lawsuit -- which names the governor, legislative leaders, the secretary of education and the state board of education as defendants -- asks the Commonwealth Court to declare the state’s current funding system unconstitutional and to require a new funding formula that provides adequate and equitable funding to all school districts.
The Pennsylvania Constitution requires the state legislature to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” Yet a 2006 state board of education study determined that 95% of the state’s 500 school districts required additional funding, totaling $4.4 billion, to achieve the cost per pupil necessary to provide an education that would enable a student to meet the state’s academic standards.
The General Assembly responded to the study by passing legislation that set funding targets for each school district and established a formula for distributing funding to ensure that all students would have the resources to meet the state’s standards. But, in 2011, state officials abandoned that formula, reduced state education funding by $860 million and passed legislation making it harder for communities to raise revenue locally to cover state funding cuts and growing costs.
Since then, Pennsylvania school districts have had to lay off teachers and staff, increase class sizes, cut back on facility repairs and upgrades, and postpone equipment, textbook and technology purchases. Some school districts are underfunded by more than $4,000 per student, according to the plaintiffs. Consequently, many students in these districts are unable to achieve basic proficiency on PSSA exams, which measure reading, writing, math and science performance, and are unprepared to pass the new, more rigorous Keystone Exams, which soon will be a requirement for high school graduation. Last year, more than 300,000 of the approximately 875,000 students tested couldn’t meet state standards.
The current system discriminates against students in low-income districts because, as the level of state funding for education dropped, school districts have become more dependent on funding from local property taxes, the plaintiffs noted. Per-pupil spending now ranges from $9,800 in districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 in districts with high property values and incomes, according to Pennsylvania Department of Education data.
The plaintiffs held a press conference in the Capitol Rotunda to announce the historic lawsuit, which was filed on their behalf by the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.
Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has said he wants to increase education funding and supports a new cost study to determine necessary funding levels. The Basic Education Commission, authorized under state law, plans to recommend a new funding formula by next year.
Voters sent a clear signal that they want to see education funding cuts restored and a renewed focus on student needs. The lawsuit may be the motivation that all parties need to resolve this longstanding issue. For more information on the lawsuit, visit www.edfundinglawsuit.wordpress.com.