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Fair schools funding fight gets its day

Advocates for fair school funding in Pennsylvania are watching the calendar, but the anticipated date isn’t on the docket of the state legislature.

A lawsuit filed seven years ago by parents and school districts against state government has been given a tentative trial date in September and has the potential to change the way schools are funded.

The lawsuit alleging the Pennsylvania General Assembly has violated the state’s constitution by failing to provide fair and adequate funding for public education was given a tentative trial date of Sept. 9 in Commonwealth Court in an April 1 order from Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer.

A pretrial conference date of June 21 is when the true date of trial is expected to be set, according to a report by Delaware County Daily Times staff writer Alex Rose.

The lawsuit names the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Gov. Tom Wolf and government officials including state Senate President Pro-Tempore Jake Corman and Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Bryan Cutler as defendants, among others.

The case was brought in 2014 by six school districts, including William Penn in Delaware County, as well as the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA, and five public school parents to challenge what they view as a skewed funding structure that has harmed the state’s poorest children.

According to the suit, Pennsylvania lawmakers have been on notice since at least 2006 that public education required approximately $4.4 billion in additional funding in order for all schools to meet the state’s academic standards and assessments.

The petitioners pointed to U.S. Census data that ranks Pennsylvania 44th in the nation in terms of state funding with just 38%. They say this leaves districts heavily reliant on generating funds from local wealth and sets up a system where rich communities thrive and poor communities are left behind.

This funding gap disproportionately impacts students of color, the petitioners say, with 50% of Black students and 40% of Latino students attending schools in the lowest 20% of local districts, according to the Daily Times report.

“Pennsylvania schools have been described as among the most racially segregated and highly inequitable in the nation,” said petitioner Rev. Kenneth Huston, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.

“Generations of Black and brown students have attended underfunded schools and been deprived of educational opportunities, which has narrowed and limited their futures. The NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference joined this lawsuit in 2014 because we will not allow lawmakers to perpetuate this harmful school funding system that upends the lives and futures of Black children.”

The spotlight on a trial date comes at a time of increasing push for fair school funding in Pennsylvania. But even as more citizens, school officials and lawmakers join the movement, there is widespread recognition that it won’t move forward in the current political environment in Harrisburg.

Montgomery County Republican state Sen. Bob Mensch spoke on the political reality that drives the disparity during a recent fair funding forum by the Lansdale branch of the American Association of University Women.

Mensch elaborated on the “hold harmless” clause, which allows that no school district receive less in state funding than it did the year before. He said that nine of the 11 school districts in the region he represents suffer in funding dollars because of the clause, which he has proposed amending.

“They probably receive, on average, 18% of their total school funding from the state, through the basic education formula — which translates to 82% they need from property taxes,” Mensch said. “The school districts that are west of the Susquehanna (River), and north of I-80, are benefiting from hold harmless — they’re probably 82% funded through the state, and relatively small impacts from property taxes.”

Mensch said his proposal is “a hard sell, because I have 25% of the legislature that would want to support it, and 75% of the legislature that probably does not want to see hold harmless changed.”

That reality brings fair funding advocates back to seeing the lawsuit’s day in court as their best hope for reform. Proponents won an important victory in 2017 when state Supreme Court Justice David Wecht remanded the case to allow arguments on the state Constitution’s guarantee of a “fundamental right to an education.”

In that context, the lawsuit if successful could result in a massive overhaul of how public schools are funded by shifting the burden from local taxes to statewide funding distributed by need.

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