News Room

Philadelphia weighs in on school funding suit

Feb. 17 – – by Tricia L. Nadolny

Calling the state’s funding system “irrational,” the City of Philadelphia’s lawyers weighed in Tuesday on a long-standing suit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education that is being heard by the state’s highest court.

  “Poorer districts have less ability to raise money for their schools, and, at the same time, have a greater need for funding because their students require extra support,” City Solicitor Sozi Tulante wrote in the brief. “This funding system has left Pennsylvania with the most unequal distribution of education dollars of any state in the country.”

The suit was brought in November 2014 by seven parents, including several from Philadelphia; six school districts; the state NAACP; and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.

The parties claim the state has a 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.”

Though similar cases have been thrown out in the past, lawyers for the plaintiffs say the adoption of statewide academic standards should force the court to acknowledge that Pennsylvania is not providing an adequate education.

The plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court in May after the case was tossed by Commonwealth Court, which ruled that education funding should be left to the legislature, not the courts.

The lawsuit comes as Gov. Wolf has proposed millions more in new money for Philadelphia and other struggling school districts statewide – money that has been held up by a months-long budget stalemate in Harrisburg.

The plaintiffs, who are being represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, say a judicial fix is necessary to ensure long-term equity in funding. Jennifer Clarke, the Public Interest Law Center’s executive director, said the suit is “more important than ever” in light of the budget stalemate.

“We are grateful to the city for filing this brief and arguing that all children in Pennsylvania, including children in Philadelphia, deserve their day in court,” she said.

In the brief filed Tuesday, Philadelphia’s law department argues that for two reasons, only a “substantial increase” in funding can fix the problem. First, it says, further increasing local funding is not an option. And second, the underfunding is “much worse than the numbers suggest” because of the district’s high percentage of needy students, specifically those in deep poverty and for whom English is a second language, the city argues.

“The city has taken extraordinary efforts to raise additional local funding for its schools, but those efforts have reached the limits of what its businesses and citizens can sustain,” Tulante wrote. “Additional state funding is the only solution to the city’s current school crisis.”

The court has yet to set a date for oral arguments in the case.