When several school districts sued state officials on Monday over education funding, they reignited a torch that advocates have been carrying for decades.
The lawsuit is a follow-up to a similar legal challenge filed in 1991 and tossed out in 1999, without a resolution.
Judges in the Commonwealth Court and the state Supreme Court said they couldn’t measure whether districts were delivering a subpar education because of inadequate state funding.
“The conversation has never gone away,” said Joe Bard, head of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, a plaintiff in both lawsuits. “People have asked us, probably more frequently than any other question, ‘When are you going to sue the state again?'”
The difference this time, plaintiffs say, is that more extensive statewide education standards and standardized testing are in place, giving the courts a way to assess whether school districts are being required to do more than they can afford.
“We can say what a kid should know and measure it, that that makes a critical difference between last time and this,” said Bard. “Today, what you’re getting when you graduate essentially is a state diploma … you graduate by meeting state requirements.”
When the first funding lawsuit was rejected in 1999, state funding reportedly covered 39 percent of the total cost of public education.
Advocates say the state now covers 33 percent of the total share of education in Pennsylvania.
Gov. Tom Corbett, named among defendants in the suit, insists that state funding for education has increased. His administration refers to a figure that includes state pension contributions for school employees. Education advocates argue that state officials should restrict the tally to money that goes toward instruction.
This latest suit, which includes the William Penn School District as a plaintiff, also names legislative leaders as defendants – a break from the 1991 challenge, when advocates were advised not to go after lawmakers out of deference to the very policymakers who could rework a more equitable method of funding school districts.
“This time we just said, ‘To hell with it,'” said Bard. “They’re largely responsible.”
Corbett said earlier this year that he considered the state’s current method of funding education “not fair.” His administration scrapped a funding formula developed under former Gov. Ed Rendell. The formula was midway through a years-long implementation designed to minimize disparities while increasing overall funding for schools across the state.
Lawmakers, with Corbett’s approval, created a commission tasked with designing a new funding formula. The panel’s recommendations are due next year.