School advocates sue Pennsylvania over funding

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Public school advocates sued top state officials Monday, alleging that an irrational system of distributing state subsidies is creating academic inequities and depriving many students of the “thorough and efficient” public education system guaranteed in the state constitution.

The lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court says the state has established strict academic standards but failed to provide equal resources for students who must meet them. The plaintiffs contend that public spending per pupil ranges from less than $10,000 in districts with low property values and incomes to about $28,000 in those with higher property values and incomes.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the current funding formula violates the constitution and order state officials to devise a funding system that passes constitutional muster.

“Pennsylvania’s state constitution tells us that the buck stops with the state Legislature when it comes to public education. State officials know exactly what needs to be done, but they refuse to do it,” said Jennifer R. Clarke, director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

Six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP are the plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed by Clark’s organization and the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center. Defendants include the governor, the presiding officers of the state House and Senate and the state Department of Education.

The suit says fewer than half the students who took the Keystone exams in the 2012-13 school year passed the tests. Starting with the class of 2017, students must demonstrate their understanding of literature, biology and algebra by passing a test in each subject area or completing a project under an instructor’s guidance to get a diploma.

“How are kids supposed to pass the tests required to graduate (from) high school, find a job and contribute to our economy if their schools are starving for resources?” asked Jamella Miller, who said she and her husband have hired a private tutor help their 11-year-old daughter because such help is not available through the William Penn School District.

Joe Bard, director of the organization representing small and rural districts, cited a legislatively mandated study of state funding in 2007 that indicated more than 470 of the 500 districts were not receiving enough state money.

“Our state is systematically denying public school students the resources they need in every corner of the commonwealth,” he said.

Prospective changes in the way Pennsylvania finances public education are being scrutinized by a legislatively mandated 15-member Basic Education Funding Commission. The panel held its first meeting in July and is scheduled to make recommendations by next summer.

Stephen Miskin, a spokesman for House Speaker Sam Smith, said the bulk of basic school state aid — $5.5 billion this year — is earmarked for the least wealthy school districts. Total state expenditures on schools, including special education, employee pensions, special block grants and transportation, are more than $10 billion.

Although the Legislature tweaks the formula annually, nearly half the state money goes to the 125 least affluent districts, he said. The wealthiest districts may spend more on their schools but local property taxpayers foot most of the bill, he said.

State Education Department spokesman Timothy Eller said: “The state courts have consistently ruled that funding for public schools is under the sole discretion of the General Assembly, and it not an issue in which the courts would be involved.”

The constitution requires the state to provide “for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” In 1999, the courts rejected a challenge of the school funding system because there were no academic standards against which to judge its constitutionality, but such standards are now in place, Clarke said.

School districts participating in the suit are William Penn, Panther Valley School District, Lancaster School District, Greater Johnstown School District, Wilkes-Barre Area School District and Shenandoah Valley School District. The parent plaintiffs have children in one of those districts or the Philadelphia School District.

Spokesmen for Gov. Tom Corbett and the Department of Education said they had not seen the lawsuit and declined immediate comment.