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Three NEPA schools challenge funding

Nov. 11, 2014 – By Robert Swift, Scranton Times-Tribune – A Wilkes-Barre mother joined school districts and advocacy groups Monday in a lawsuit calling for an end to sharp inequities in funding for public education throughout Pennsylvania.

Tracey Hughes is a plaintiff in the lawsuit filed in Commonwealth Court on behalf of her minor son described by the initials P.M.H., an eighth-grader at E.L. Meyers Junior-Senior High School in Wilkes-Barre Area School District.

The lawsuit documents how her son’s academic performance dropped after fourth grade as class sizes increased to more than 30 students, and funding cuts necessitated the sharing of school textbooks among students. Tutoring options were unavailable due to lack of resources. The result, the lawsuit contends, is that Ms. Hughes’ son’s inability to meet state academic proficiency standards is directly affected by the failure of state officials to provide his school district with sufficient academic resources.

Wilkes-Barre Area School District in Luzerne County, Shenandoah Valley School District in Schuylkill County and Panther Valley School District in Carbon County are plaintiffs in the lawsuit seeking court action to erase disparities in per pupil spending between richer and poorer school districts across Pennsylvania. Often reflecting variations in property values, education spending ranges from a low of $9,800 per pupil to a peak of $28,400 per pupil, advocates said.

“We have a problem here in Pennsylvania,” said Maura McInerney, attorney with the Education Law Center-PA. “We have hundreds of thousands of students who lack the basic resources they need to get an adequate education.”

The lawsuit comes with Democratic Gov.-elect Tom Wolf elected last week on a platform to restore education spending cuts and a bipartisan drive in the Legislature to replace school property taxes with a mix of higher state income and state sales taxes.

Meanwhile, a special state commission is holding hearings on what factors should be considered in establishing a new basic education funding formula.

The lawsuit charges that state officials, lawmakers and the governor have failed to uphold a constitutional obligation to provide a system of public education that gives all children the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards.

Advocates said they are not suggesting what revenue sources should be used for public education, but would like the Legislature to set a deadline to fix the problem.

State officials have adopted an irrational school funding system that discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities, according to the lawsuit.

The court has a duty to determine whether or not the Legislature is supporting a “thorough and efficient system of public education” as mandated by the state constitution, the lawsuit said.

The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center-PA are representing the petitioners. The plaintiffs include the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, which represents 150 school districts, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.

Pennsylvania is distributing $5.5 billion this year through an instructional subsidy to school districts. All told, state spending on basic education totals $10 billion when pension costs, transportation and special education are also included.

Read more on the Times-Tribune website.