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Commonwealth Court Schedules Trial For Education Funding Lawsuit

Julio Cortez
A general view of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center, home to the Commonwealth Court, is seen Friday, Nov. 6, 2020, in Harrisburg, Pa.

A lawsuit over how Pennsylvania funds public schools is scheduled to go to court this fall. The proceedings in Commonwealth Court areslated to begin September 9th, seven years after the suit was originally filed.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, a group of parents, school districts, and advocacy organizations say the state government has failed to provide all students with an “adequate” education as required in the Pennsylvania constitution and that, as a result, children’s opportunities rest largely on where they live. Black and Latino students are concentrated in underfunded districts, according to research prepared for the case.

Now, the group is publicizing the tentative start date of September 9 to draw attention to their cause.

“It is not a just system when the poorest of students make the greatest of sacrifices when accessing their education,” said Damaris Rau, superintendent of the School District of Lancaster, which is one of the plaintiffs.

Underfunding forces the district to choose between expenses like smaller class sizes and summer school opportunities, or textbooks and after school programs, Rau said, all while being evaluated based on the same standards as wealthier districts.

Rau and Shenandoah Valley superintendent Brian Waite said the interruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic last year only intensified such choices. Both districts had to rely on paper handouts rather than providing devices to all students.

Using cost assessments the legislature made in the 2000s, a group supporting the lawsuit estimated the state would need to spend $4.6 billion dollars more to close the gaps.

The case began in 2014, before lawmakers adopted the current funding formula to boost equity in the state’s education system. The formula accounts for increasing enrollment and factors like the numbers of English Language Learners and students in poverty. But right now, it does not apply to most of the money districts get from the state.

If it did, districts like York, Harrisburg, and Lancaster would get tens of millions more dollars than they do now. Reading would get more than 100 million additional dollars, Philadelphia more than 300 million. But some districts with declining enrollment would lose funding.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court dismissed the case in 2015, but in recent years the Supreme Court ordered it to look again.

Maura McInerney, an attorney with the Education Law Center who is representing the plaintiffs, says the cost of educating students has only gone up: “Special education costs have increased. Pension costs have increased. Fixed expenses have increased,” she said.  “So if you look at money going to the classroom, you actually see that there is even more of a gap than there was at the time that we filed this lawsuit.”

Michael Churchill is an attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing school districts, parents, and advocacy groups in the case.

He said he does not expect disparities in education funding to be much of an argument at trial.

“Most of our evidence is actually going to come from state documents and state witnesses themselves,” he said. “So it’ll be interesting to see what kind of defense is actually mounted.”

The lawsuit names the governor’s office, state education board, and heads of both chambers of the General Assembly, as defendants. But Churchill said lawmakers would likely be defending the state in the trial.

The Pennsylvania house and senate leadership could not be immediately reached for comment.

Outside of the lawsuit, Governor Tom Wolf proposed the state send 6.4 billion dollars through the formula and replace one billion dollars that school districts with declining enrollments would lose.

A decision on Pennsylvania’s budget is officially due July 1st, but debate has extended well beyond that date in the past.

Read more from our partners, WITF.

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