School funding lawsuit is ‘like Groundhog Day’ movie, state officials say
March 11, 2015 – by Kara Newhouse, LancasterOnline – As long as public schools are open and running, the state Legislature is meeting its constitutional obligation, argued legal representatives for state officials on Wednesday.
State officials sought to have a lawsuit that claims Pennsylvania doesn’t provide sufficient funding for education dismissed by Commonwealth Court.
School District of Lancaster is one of six school districts that filed the suit against the governor, the secretary of education, legislative leaders and the State Board of Education last fall. Seven parents and two advocacy organizations also were among the parties who filed the suit.
On Wednesday, a panel of seven judges heard arguments on whether to hold a trial on the matter. Their decision could take weeks or months.
Brad Elias, an attorney representing the suing parties, said the state constitution demands that the Legislature do more than just keep the lights on in public schools.
The Pennsylvania constitution requires that the state provide “for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Patrick Northen, an attorney representing the House and Senate, said the lawsuit felt like the movie “Groundhog Day,” pointing out that the courts have ruled previously that they cannot determine what “thorough and efficient” looks like.
The current legal challenge comes after several years of budget cuts for many public schools around the state. Gov. Tom Wolf this month proposed a $400 million increase to basic education spending, among other budget boosts.
A panel of lawmakers also is working on recommendations for a new school funding formula. Its suggestions are expected to be delivered no later than June. Pennsylvania is one of only three states that does not have a predictable education funding formula based on student enrollment and characteristics.
Elias told judges Wednesday that the current school funding lawsuit differs from previous ones because of the state academic standards that have been adopted by the Legislature in intervening years. He said that if given a trial, his side would show that the funding system does not allow schools to meet those standards.
Lucy Fritz, an attorney for the Attorney General’s office, said the issue is a public policy debate that’s being fought out in the Legislature “where it should be, not in the court.”
Two nonprofit law firms, The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, are representing the School District of Lancaster and other suing parties for free. A lawyer from the Public Interest Law Center said after the preliminary hearing that whether or not Commonwealth Court decides to hold a trial, he expects the issue to move up to the state Supreme Court.