Claiming Pa. shortchanges kids, coalition seeks funding for ‘thorough’ education

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 The suit filed Monday claims Pennsylvania

The suit filed Monday claims Pennsylvania "drastically underfunds school districts across the commonwealth and discriminates against children on the basis of the taxable property and household incomes in their districts." (Emma Lee/WHYY)

A broad-based coalition of rural, urban and suburban school districts, parents and advocates has filed a lawsuit against the state of Pennsylvania, claiming it has failed to ensure that all children receive “a thorough and efficient” education.

In the Monday filing, plaintiffs asked the Commonwealth Court to compel state leaders to equitably distribute enough funding for all students to be able to meet the state’s prescribed academic standards.

“The resources that we collect aren’t adequate to maintain the level of education that the state of Pennsylvania expects from its students,” said William Penn School District Superintendent Joe Bruni.

In addition to William Penn, five other school districts joined in the filing: Panther Valley (Carbon County), Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre and Shenandoah (Schuylkill County).

Six sets of parents, as well as The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small schools and the Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP, signed on to the case. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and Education Law Center organized the long-awaited case.

“The state does not take a systematic look at what is needed to pay for the cost of education, but merely distributes the money that it finds convenient,” said Michael Churchill, staff attorney at PILCOP. “That system has to end.” 

The suit names as defendants: Gov. Tom Corbett, state Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, the state Board of Education, as well as Republican leadership in the legislature — Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati and House Speaker Sam Smith.

When Gov.-elect Tom Wolf takes office, he’ll become a defendant in the case, as will his education secretary.

In the official filing, ELC and PILCOP contend that the state “drastically underfunds school districts across the commonwealth and discriminates against children on the basis of the taxable property and household incomes in their districts.”

The Corbett administration believes education spending is not a matter for the courts to decide.

“The commonwealth’s authority rests on the amount of state dollars allocated in the annual state budget for support of public schools, and as of 2014-15, Pennsylvania invests a record $10 billion in public schools – the highest level ever,” said Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller, speaking for the Corbett administration as a whole.

A similar legal action was taken against the state in the 1990s. The court ruled that there was no judicially measurable standards to decide exactly what the state constitution means when it says the legislature must provide a “thorough and efficient” education.

Academic expectations

Plaintiffs argue that view has become obsolete as the state, in recent years, has developed its own core standards and built up a standardized-test infrastructure that specifically delineates academic expectations.

“What differs is that today we have measurable standards of what schools are supposed to teach and what students are supposed to learn,” said PILCOP’s Churchill.

Until the state at least meets its own prescribed targets of having 70 percent of students proficient on state tests in reading and 73 percent proficient in math, Churchill believes that the state is falling short.

Currently, three-quarters of the state’s districts have at least one school that isn’t making those grades.

“This is not an isolated problem,” he said. “This is a statewide problem.”

Jamella Miller’s sixth-grade daughter attends a school where test scores fall well short of state expectations: Ardmore Avenue Elementary, a Delaware County school within the William Penn district.

“If you know what a child needs, why wouldn’t our state provide that for all of the students?” said Miller. “Why would only some students who live in affluent areas get that kind of care?”

Miller’s eldest daughter completed the majority of her schooling in Upper Moreland, Montgomery County, and Georgia, where resources were much more plentiful.

“There were computer labs and smaller class sizes and supports available for our older daughter,” said Miller, “that our younger daughter didn’t experience.”

At Ardmore Avenue Elementary, Miller, whose property taxes have spiked over the past three years, says her daughter attends overcrowded classes where “all you get is the basic four walls of the classroom.”

Shelia Armstrong, a single mother, who sends her seventh-grade son to Spring Garden Elementary in Philadelphia, says she joined the suit because, as a Christian, she’s called “to fight for those who can’t fight for themselves.”

She believes her own son has been getting a “subpar” education, in which he’s been denied the textbooks he needs and the foreign language courses he wishes he could take.

Armstrong herself went to public schools in Philadelphia 20 years ago, where she feels she had more opportunities than her son does today.

“It’s very frustrating to see … how disgustingly poor the school district has become,” she said.

Costing out

The plaintiffs also believe their case has merit based on the state-commissioned “costing out” study that performed by the legislature in 2006-07.

The study found that 95 percent of the state’s school districts required additional funding in order to meet state standards – a shortfall that totaled $4.4 billion.

Based on that finding, the General Assembly passed a measure that established higher funding targets and adjusted the formula for dispersing the money.

By 2011, having to deal with a staggering recessionary state budget deficit, incoming Gov. Tom Corbett abandoned the formula and passed a budget that slashed school funding.

In addition to reducing the state’s basic education subsidy – which had been propped up by expiring federal stimulus cash – lawmakers axed the line-item that reimburses districts for the fiscal impact of student migration to charter schools. This was especially painful for urban districts such as Philadelphia, Reading and York.

Subsequent Corbett-era budgets increased some education line-items, but classroom funding for many districts has yet to recover. Corbett has attributed part of this problem to the ballooning cost of teacher pensions, an expense he counts in his education spending tallies.

‘Vastly behind’

In an email correspondence, Stephen Miskin, spokesman for Speaker of the House Smith, dismissed the overarching tenet of the case.

“We use a fair funding distribution formula helping districts with a declining or small tax base; it drives the vast bulk of our tax dollars to what is considered the least wealthy districts,” Miskin said. “The data bears out this fact.”

The state has already created a basic education funding commission that’s been tasked with more fairly allocating the state’s largest pot of education funding, with a report due in June, 2015.

The commission has been holding hearings across the state and will convene in Philadelphia’s City Hall next week.

But to David Lapp, who helped organize the case for the Education Law Center, the charge of the basic funding commissioners is as noble as it is limited.

“They’re not looking at what schools actually need,” said Lapp. “They’re only looking at the way to distribute any additional monies that get appropriated.”

In the funding lawsuit of the1990s, it took years before the court ultimately decided that it could not make a ruling in the case.

For the sake of her daughter, William Penn School district’s Jamella Miller hopes this case will find a much quicker resolution.

“If she waits a year, another two years, that’s two years lost from her education that other students are receiving,” she said. “By the time it’s time for her to go to college, she’ll be vastly behind.”

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