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School districts, parents, activists sue Pennsylvania over school funding

Nov. 11, 2014 – Kristen Graham, Philadelphia Inquirer – Alleging that Pennsylvania’s education-funding system is “irrational and inequitable,” a group of parents, school districts, and organizations on Monday sued the commonwealth, saying it had failed to provide all students with an appropriate education.

Plaintiffs in the long-expected suit, filed in Commonwealth Court, include two Philadelphia School District parents and the William Penn School District in Delaware County.

State officials have “adopted an irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need, and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities,” say the plaintiffs, who are represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center-PA.

Urban, suburban, and rural districts are included in the long-anticipated suit, which names as respondents Gov. Corbett, acting Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq, and legislative leaders.

The Philadelphia School District, a state-run system, did not join in the legal action.

“We believe that as a school district, we help our schools best by working with the governor and legislature. We unequivocally advocate for a formula that will fully and equitably fund the schools in our city and across the commonwealth,” the district said in a statement.

“The Pennsylvania funding commission was formed to improve on a status quo that is painfully inadequate for our students, and we look forward to its results in conjunction with our continued efforts in Harrisburg.”

Besides William Penn, the plaintiffs include the Panther Valley School District in Carbon County, the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District in Cambria County, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District in Luzerne County, and the Shenandoah Valley School District in Schuylkill County.

The state NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools filed on behalf of their members.

While leaders impose academic standards on children, they do not give them the resources to meet those standards, the suit states.

The state knows how much it must spend to educate all students fairly, but has failed to provide the money, said lawyer Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.

“It’s a shame that it has come to this,” Churchill said. “It is really only because of the starkest failures that we are taking this step to force the legislature’s hand by going through the courts.”

Sheila Armstrong joined the suit on behalf of her son, a seventh grader at Spring Garden Elementary in Philadelphia.

City schools are so strapped that the boy has never been able to bring home a textbook, Armstrong said. Her son has asthma, but his school has a nurse only one day a week. Spring Garden lost its Spanish program and has no music teacher, and some floors of the 80-year-old building lack a working bathroom.

Suing the state is a big step, said Armstrong, 37, who is unemployed.

“But it’s my job as a parent and a woman of faith to fight for our children,” she said.

Jamella and Bryant Miller of Lansdowne are suing on behalf of their daughter, a sixth grader at Ardmore Avenue Elementary in the William Penn district.

Their older daughter attended school in the Upper Moreland School District for a time, Jamella Miller said. William Penn is not far away geographically, but the resources in its school are much different.

“The supports just aren’t there,” said Miller, 34, a clinical data manager at the University of Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania is a rarity nationwide, one of a handful of states that lack a school funding formula. A lack of formula leads to a heavy reliance on property taxes and wide gaps in per-pupil spending; depending on where they live, spending per public school student in Pennsylvania ranges from $9,800 to $28,400.

Still, many poor districts have higher tax rates than wealthy ones. They “simply cannot raise enough money to improve education without more assistance from the state,” the suit states.

William Penn, for instance, has the highest school-tax rate in the area – much higher than Lower Merion, for instance, where schools are much better – and its schools still struggle.

Rocked by state funding cuts in recent years, William Penn has had to lay off teachers, support staff, counselors, social workers, reading specialists, and coaches, Superintendent Joseph Bruni said.

Joining the suit was not an easy decision, Bruni said. But he and the school board thought it necessary, despite the possibility of angering state officials responsible for funding the district.

“It’s a daily struggle to do the best, and we don’t have the resources to provide children with the things they need,” Bruni said. “This is an effort to have some relief for our taxpayers and to give our students a better opportunity to be successful in school.”

A committee has begun exploring the idea of an education funding formula for Pennsylvania, but the group’s work is just beginning. Gov.-elect Tom Wolf has said that he intends to restore education cuts and enact a funding formula.

Wolf will become a respondent in the suit when he takes office.

“This is not about which political party or which individual is in office,” said David Lapp, an Education Law Center lawyer. “It’s about the failure of our entire state government to provide a thorough and efficient education to all students.”

A similar lawsuit was filed 15 years ago. Ultimately, the court said it could not order changes because it had no way to determine whether students were meeting academic standards. That has changed with the adoption of statewide exams, the plaintiffs argue.

Responding to the lawsuit, Tim Eller, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said that the court has made it clear that school funding is under the sole discretion of the General Assembly, and said that the state spent at record levels on its public schools this year.

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