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Schools suing Pa. Department of Education over funding

Nov. 10, 2014 – By Adam Clark, Allentown Morning Call – Saying Pennsylvania’s new academic standards have given them legal might, six school districts and seven parents are suing the state Department of Education and state officials over what they claim is an “irrational school-funding system.”

The schools, including Panther Valley School District, filed a lawsuit Monday along with The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the state NAACP.

The lawsuit claims Pennsylvania has failed to meet its obligation to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” for all students as required by the state’s constitution.

“Our students aren’t given a fair shake or an opportunity to be as successful as we would like them to be,” Panther Valley Superintendent Dennis Kergick said.

Pennsylvania has academic standards that define what is required by schools for a thorough and efficient public education but has failed to support the system with enough funding for every school district to meet those standards, the plaintiffs claim.

The current funding system violates the state constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because it has created significant resource disparities that discriminate against students living in districts with low property values and incomes, according to the lawsuit.

School districts’ per pupil expenditures vary across the state from as little as $9,800 to more than $28,400, according to 2012-13 data cited in the lawsuit. Students in low-wealth schools are denied the opportunity to receive an adequate education while their peers in wealthier districts are receiving a high-quality education, the suit claims.

Panther Valley is cited in the suit as a prime example of the funding disparity. Even with double the state aid, the small Carbon County district spends less than half what Montgomery County’s Lower Merion School District does per pupil, according to the suit.

Panther Valley has no full-time computer teacher or librarian at its elementary school and is unable to offer the courses it wants throughout the district’s grade levels, Kergick said. None of its schools met the state benchmark for success on the 2013-14 School Performance Profile, released last week.

“It’s a challenge,” Kergick said.

The suit asks the court to declare that the current funding system violates the state constitution and to order the state to cease using it. It also asks that the state create a funding system that does not discriminate against students in low-wealth school districts.

It does not suggest a specific funding formula or a specific amount that should be spent on education.

Along with Panther Valley, the William Penn, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Shenandoah Valley and Wilkes-Barre Area school districts support the suit.

Other plaintiffs include parents of students from some of those districts and two parents from Philadelphia. PARSS represents about 150 rural and small school districts.

The Department of Education, Gov. Tom Corbett, acting Secretary of Education Carolyn Dumaresq, Speaker of the House Samuel Smith and Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati are named as defendants.

Gov.-elect Tom Wolf and the new secretary of education, will be substituted as defendants when they take office, according to The Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which are representing the plaintiffs.

Corbett’s administration responded Monday afternoon, saying the state courts have consistently ruled that funding for public schools is under the sole discretion of the General Assembly, and it is not an issue in which the courts would be involved.

“The commonwealth’s authority rests on the amount of state dollars allocated in the annual state budget for support of public schools, and as of 2014-15, Pennsylvania invests a record $10 billion in public schools — the highest level ever,” spokesman Tim Eller said in a statement.

Lawsuits in the late 1990s challenging Pennsylvania’s education funding system were defeated.

The court previously ruled that it could not address problems with school funding since it did not have any manageable standards by which to measure what students needed to learn and whether they were meeting those standards, according to the attorneys in the new lawsuit.

Two key factors have changed since that ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs said.

First, a costing-out study in 2007 showed how much money the state believed schools needed to provide a thorough education. Though the Legislature initially attempted to fund education to that level, it abandoned those plans, according to the suit.

Second, the introduction of the Keystone Exams created a standard of what students need to learn to graduate. Currently, more than 50 percent of students are unable to pass the Keystone Exams, the suit claims.

Bethlehem Area School District supports the premise of the lawsuit but choose not to be a plaintiff, Superintendent Joseph Roy said. The district, which recently settled a long legal battle with a parent, did not want to enter what may be a lengthy entanglement, Roy said.

Allentown School District Superintendent Russ Mayo could not be reached for comment.

Read the full story on the Morning Call website