School funding suit slams cuts

Petitioners decry increasing gaps between rich, poor districts

Petitioners in an ongoing school funding lawsuit against the state reported decreased classroom spending and widening inequities, leaving schools starved for resources in a brief and affidavit filed Friday in Commonwealth Court.

An analysis from an economist at the Keystone Research Center is included in the filing along with affidavits from the superintendents of each petitioner school district: William Penn, Lancaster, Wilkes-Barre Area, Greater Johns­town, Panther Valley and Shenandoah Valley, a press release stated.

Disclosure of increasing funding gaps between rich and poor districts and declining state funds available for student needs were filed Friday by attorneys from the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

The filing rebuts an objection made in recent months by Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati that the lawsuit, initiated in 2014, has been rendered moot by the Legislature’s adoption of a fair funding formula in 2016.

That new formula currently applies to only a small percentage of school funding.

While some groups want a faster, full implementation of the formula, critics are concerned about losing the “hold harmless” practice that especially benefits rural schools.

Hold harmless is the practice of guaranteeing that a school district receives no less in state basic education dollars than it received in the prior fiscal year and has been a considerable factor in the distribution of basic education dollars in Penn­syl­vania.

In a phone interview with the Mirror, attorney Michael Churchill of Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia stressed that the lawsuit does not ask for money to be taken away from rural schools with decreased population like those found in Blair County, which benefit from hold harmless.

“There are different ways to implement the formula. Phasing out the base is one way, but that implies you are in a zero sum game. Other ways would be to add extra funding to underfunded districts until they are caught up so you won’t have to take away from the others. All districts in Pennsylvania are underfunded.”

Churchill said the lawsuit is about all districts in the state.

“The lawsuit is about insufficient state funding — including Blair County,” he said.

Senate Education Chair­man Sen. John H. Eichel­berger Jr., R- Blair, sent a statement in strong disagreement with Churchill to the Mirror.

“His (Churchill’s) supposition that all schools are underfunded shows his ignorance of school funding and lack of concern for taxpayers across the Commonwealth, and his thought that the state would be able to add billions in additional funding to schools instead of cutting funding to the districts that don’t meet the new criteria is financially impossible and flies against a legal decision that would change what the funding standards would then be,” Eichelberger wrote.

By the Senate Appropria­tions Committee’s calculations, Eichelberger said, to apply the fair funding formula completely without shifting current funding from so-called overfunded schools to those underfunded, the state would need to add $3.2 billion to the budget.

“It’s a lot of money,” Eichelberger said.

On the other hand, he said, if the state implemented the fair funding formula not by adding new funding but by shifting all basic education funding currently budgeted, it would mean a shift of $1.1 billion from so-called overfunded schools, including schools in Blair County, to the so-called underfunded schools.

“What Churchill should be concerned about is a vast overreach by the court in a matter that is constitutionally reserved for the Leg­islature,” Eichelberger said.

Churchill said Eichelberger is entitled to his view of what is possible or impossible. He also said the lawsuit is not an overreach by the court. It’s not for the Legislature to review its own compliance with the state constitution, he said.

“Every other state with the same clause in their constitution, that it should provide a thorough and efficient system for education, have found at some point over the past 30 years that judicial review is appropriate,” he said.

The case — William Penn School District et al. v. PA Department of Education et al. — filed in 2014 by a group of six school districts, six families and two statewide organizations, alleges that the state’s school funding system violates Pennsyl­vania’s constitution due to significant underfunding and gross disparities in allocations that penalize students in low-wealth districts.

The new filings in that case Friday include objections to the notion that the fair funding formula adopted in 2016 renders the lawsuit moot. Scarnati’s legal team did not respond to a call Friday before deadline.

“The Commonwealth Court judge asked parties to file information they thought were relevant (to Scarnati’s mootness application). If he wants, Scarnati can file again for dismissal. He has 30 days to respond,” Churchill said.

He did not speculate on when the case may go to trial, but there are more steps to be taken.

“After a trial, if it goes in our favor, the court would say the Legislature is not meeting the constitutional requirement and send legislators back to attack and fix the educational system,” Churchill said.