by Sue Ann Rybak
Last November, when six Pennsylvania school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the state conference of the NAACP filed a suit in Commonwealth Court claiming that the state had failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, the state urged the court to throw out the suit on the grounds that the issues are “political questions,” which the state Supreme Court said in 1999 should not be subject to judicial review.
On Feb. 17, the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which represent the plaintiffs, will file their response to the state.
The plaintiff’s lawsuit claims that an “unconscionable and irrational funding disparity violates the Equal Protection Clause because it turns the quality of public education into an accident of geography: Children in property- and income-poor districts are denied the opportunity to receive even an adequate education, while their peers in property- and income-rich districts enjoy a high-quality education.”
Jennifer Clarke, of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said their response will argue that the state has adopted educational standards since 1999 that makes the issue reviewable by courts.
Commonwealth Court has scheduled argument on this issue in Harrisburg on March 11.
Clarke said that by the Commonwealth’s own standards, more than one-third of all Pennsylvania’s students are receiving an inadequate education and are unprepared to enter the workforce or pursue post-secondary education.
In 2006, the state Board of Education conducted a comprehensive statewide costing-out study to determine the basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the state’s academic standards and assessments.
The study concluded that 95 percent of the Commonwealth’s school districts required additional funding, totaling $4.4 billion.
According to the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania is far below the average in terms of state funding, contributing only 35.8 percent compared to the national average of 43.5 percent.
Clarke said that under Gov. Ed Rendell’s administration, the legislature adopted a formula for distributing education funds to ensure that all students would have the resources necessary to meet the state’s academic standards.
In 2011, however, under Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, the funding formula was abandoned, which resulted in a reduction of funding to districts by more than $860 million. At the same time, Congress passed legislation to prevent local communities from increasing local funding.
The lawsuit states that “Special Section Act 1 of 2006 (“Act 1”) limits, with a few exceptions, the ability of the school districts to raise property taxes beyond a cost of living percentage calculated by the Department of Education (known as Act 1 Index.)
Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said that if a district wants to raise real estate property taxes beyond the cost of living, taxpayers would have to vote on a referendum or qualify for an exception. For example, if the cost of special education services – which is a mandated service – goes up, the district can bypass this rule.
“The complaint states the irony of the fact that while the state claims the reason it is not providing more funds through public education is its desire for local control,” Churchill said.
Parents, advocates and teachers contacted by the Local voiced their support for the lawsuit. Several residents noted that access to a quality public education is a civil rights issue.
Chestnut Hill resident Haviva Goldman, 43, president of Friends of J.S. Jenks, said access to a quality public education is something that every family in Pennsylvania deserves.
“The lack of a fair funding formula in the state of Pennsylvania means that poorer districts, including Philadelphia, suffer from inadequate funding, when they are the districts that need the most, she said.
“At Jenks, we’ve managed to fill some of the budget gaps of the past few years through fundraising, but not every school community has the ability to do this, and no school can (or should) fundraise to fill the basic gaps created by a lack of funding of basics like counselors, librarians, art teachers, adequate text books, safety – these are basics that every school has the right to have as part of a basic funding mechanism.”
Another Chestnut Hill resident Bob Previdi, 52, said it’s about time that the current funding system is examined in detail.
“I’ve been following the issue closely now for five years,” he said. “Both of my children went to Jenks and now go to Masterman, and the buildings need help and so do the teachers and administrators who are stretched to the limit. If we are to call ourselves a society, we owe its members one thing: a decent education. And it actually says that in the Pennsylvania State Constitution, yet chronic underfunding continues. We all need to speak up about this issue – even if you have children in the private schools, having poorly funding public schools is hurting all our property values.”
Brian Hackford, 43, of Wissahickon, whose children attend Green Woods Charter School, 468 Domino Lane in Roxborough, said there are charter schools in Philadelphia that are doing a great job of educating their students with limited resources.
“Because of schools like Green Woods Charter, I am able to stay in the city,” said Hackford, who is the owner of Keswick Cycle, with locations in Glenside and West Philadelphia. “I choose to live in Philadelphia,” he said. “I don’t want to leave. I think the current funding system is detrimental because it impacts larger and poorer school districts negatively – particularly charter schools – who feel like they don’t have a say in Harrisburg.”
State Rep. Cherelle Parker (D-Phil.) applauded the determination of the parents and advocacy groups who have remained committed to the implementation of the funding formula for students throughout the Commonwealth.
“For the past four years, we have been fighting tirelessly to reinstate a fair education funding formula,” she said “With our new Administration’s commitment to make public education funding a top priority, as well as the new House leadership’s pledge to work in a bipartisan manner, we hope that 2014-15 will be the last school year that our students are without an equitable, needs-based funding formula.”
Mt. Airy resident Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, reiterated residents’ earlier statements that school funding “has to be fair, and it has to be adequate.”
“The legislature can act, or the courts can act, but some part of our government has to make sure we live up to our Constitution,” she said.
For more information about the lawsuit go to edfundinglawsuit.wordpress.com.