Last week, parents of public school children and advocates for those schools won a big victory in a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision that will test the state’s current funding system.
The case, “William Penn School District et. al. v. Pa. Department of Education,” was filed in 2014 by six public school families, the William Penn School District Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. It argued that current funding structures violated the state constitution, which broadly promises efficient funding for public schools.
The petitioners in the case argued that there’s nothing at all efficient about the current system and that state funding formulas “are irrational, arbitrary and not reasonably calculated” to provide all students with the instruction they need to pass state academic testing standards.
The Supreme Court’s ruling will allow the case to go to court, putting the state on the defensive. Education funding advocates are thrilled with the chance and argue that the state’s current practices are indefensible.
“This ruling is a victory for students, for families, and for sustained organizing by communities over decades of struggle,” said at-large Councilwoman Helen Gym in a statement this week. Gym made school funding a cornerstone of her 2015 election campaign.
“I look forward to the next stage – a trial – in which the people will speak. We will testify to our experiences of shuttered schools, buildings in disrepair, poorly resourced classrooms, and a legislature that has failed time and again in its central duty to fund our schools equitably.”
The results of unequal funding are easy to see. Travel to any city public school and you will encounter a mix of aging infrastructure and lack of books. Some schools have had to raise their own funds just to provide children with libraries. The plaintiffs in William Penn v. Pa. argue, in essence, that it’s not fair or even possible for children to be assessed under current conditions.
The funding gap, at its most simple, is the result of the state’s over-reliance on local funding. Under current practice, wealthier school districts can provide funding for their students through local property taxes. In 2015, a study by the U.S. Department of Education found Pennsylvania had the most inequitable distribution of funding of any state in the nation.
Governor Tom Wolf, whose election arguably had to do with cuts to state education funding made by his predecessor more than anything else, entered office with am ambitious plan to replace local school funding with increases to state income taxes. The plan was met with stiff resistance in the state legislature and was abandoned.
Here, like in so many other aspects of American life now, the courts will pick up where legislation has failed. The evidence is plentiful on the side of school advocates. Hopefully their day in court will see funding for the state’s neediest school districts set right.