Education is more than ‘keeping the doors open’

Posted 3/25/15

by Sue Ann Rybak

If you ask any parent with a child in the Philadelphia School District whether they think Pennsylvania's current system of funding education is fair, I doubt that many would …

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Education is more than ‘keeping the doors open’


by Sue Ann Rybak

If you ask any parent with a child in the Philadelphia School District whether they think Pennsylvania's current system of funding education is fair, I doubt that many would agree.

While most states have adopted fair-funding formulas designed to accurately, fairly and transparently identify costs and distribute funding to their schools, Pennsylvania has gone backwards.

In 2008, the General Assembly implemented a funding formula to distribute education funding. According to the Education Law Center, the formula was similar to one that many states are now using.

The Pennsylvania formula measured the number of students in each district, community poverty levels, and local tax effort, allocating relatively more funding to districts that are larger, are poorer, and have lower property taxes. But under Gov. Tom Corbett's administration, this funding formula was abandoned.

But, that could change, thanks to a lawsuit filed in the Commonwealth Court last November, claiming that the state had failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education.

The lawsuit, filed by six Pennsylvania school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the state conference of the NAACP, 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 an adequate education, while their peers in property-and-income-rich districts enjoy a high-quality education.”

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, Pennsylvania has the worst spending gap between rich and poor school districts in the nation.

Earlier this month, the court listened to arguments from both sides about whether it should hear the school funding case or not.

As a parent of two daughters in the Philadelphia School District, I have been following the case very closely.

Maura McInery, a senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center, argued in court that “the schoolchildren of Pennsylvania have an enforceable right to be heard, and the court has a vital role to play in ensuring that the legislature meets its constitutional obligation” to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.

The defendants on the other hand, according to Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center, “took the position that the political process is solving this and the court should go home.”

Churchill told me in an interview that the attorney for the legislature said “the only obligation of the legislature is to make sure the doors stay open.”

So in the legislature’s opinion, it's not necessary to have teachers or books to have a “thorough and efficient” system of education. As long as the doors are open, the state is meeting its constitutional mandate.

It might just as well be a prison.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that youth who have access to a quality education are less likely to commit crimes, less likely to place high demands on the public health care system, and less likely to be enrolled in public assistance programs.

Investing in public education is far more cost-effective than paying for the social and economic consequences of under-funded, low-quality schools.

Despite this, Pennsylvania continues to invest more money in prisons then in education. In 2014, under Gov. Corbett's budget, Pennsylvania allocated more than $2 billion to prisons while cutting funds for education by $1 billion.

But back to the lawsuit

The plaintiffs argued that by the state's own standards, it is failing to educate our children.

In 2006, the Pennsylvania 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.

But regardless of how students are doing on Keystone exams or other statewide standardized tests, according to the legislature, just keeping the doors open meets the constitutional standard.

Let’s hope the Commonwealth Court decides to hear the case. Otherwise, Pennsylvania's public schools may soon become warehouses for our children. But, hey, at least the doors will be open.