PA Districts Sue State Over Inequitable School Funding

While Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf and the state legislature argue over his proposed budget increase for education, some districts and parents are taking another route to fight for increased funding for their schools: the courts. The Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCP) filed a suit on behalf of six school districts, two associations, and seven parents against the state in an attempt to prove the government's non-compliance in providing the "thorough and efficient" public educational system promised in the state constitution.

Pennsylvania certainly struggles to adequately fund its schools, which have faced massive budget cuts in recent years. Additionally, Pennsylvania is one of the few states without a fair funding formula for distributing state resources to local districts. These cuts and a perpetually inconsistent budget has resulted in some schools being unable to maintain basic resources like nurses, librarians and counselors. And while school boards can raise local property taxes in an attempt to cover the shortfall, many districts (such as those represented in this suit) serve a high proportion of students and families living in poverty, making such a strategy ineffective.

The state has faced these accusations in court before, back in the 1990s. However, the courts consistently ruled that the definition of a "thorough and efficient" education was the responsibility of the legislature. Lawyers speaking on behalf of the state insist that these rulings still apply, and that as long as Pennsylvania can keep its schools open, they are fulfilling their constitutional obligation. But representatives for the districts in the lawsuit argue that newer statewide standards and testing provide a way to objectively demonstrate if students truly are receiving the "thorough" education the constitution promises.

Quoted in The Notebook, Michael Churchill of PILCP explains what these districts, associations, and parents hope their suit accomplishes:

 "At this stage, a declaration that the current system does not meet constitutional standards. We would expect the court to ask the legislature and the executive to submit a plan saying what they would do in response" and "describing a method for determining 'adequacy.'"

The Commonwealth Court heard arguments on this case on Wednesday, March 11th. You can find the full complaint here, and watch a short video on the lawsuit below:

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