Pennsylvania Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument for Fair Education Funding Lawsuit

The suit, filed in 2014, claims the Commonwealth is violating its constitutional duty to “support and maintain” a “thorough and efficient system of public education”

PHILADELPHIA – September 13, 2016 – Oral argument in William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. commenced before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court at Philadelphia City Hall on September 13. Hundreds of parents, students, superintendents, and school board members, including advocates from as far away as Erie and Pittsburgh, crowded the halls of Philadelphia City Hall and waited in line to attend the argument.

The case was filed in 2014 against the governor and legislative leaders in response to decades of underfunding by Harrisburg that has deprived children of the resources they need to succeed.

The attorney for the petitioners delivered a powerful argument urging the state’s highest court to permit judicial review of the state’s failures to uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Education Clause and Equal Protection provision. Specifically, the petitioners challenged that years of underfunding by the state legislature are in direct violation of the Education Clause’s language to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

Two attorneys representing the legislature and Governor argued that the courts have no role in ensuring that children in Pennsylvania have access to an adequate education and that the courts have no responsibility to enforce the state constitution.

“The legislature continues to abdicate its constitutional responsibilities year after year by drastically underfunding our public schools,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center. “Today we asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to give us the opportunity to make the case for our public schools in court. We asked the court to protect and enforce our Constitution.”

“Pennsylvania’s current education funding system is unconstitutional. Right now, a child’s ZIP code determines whether or not he or she will have access to basic school resources like text books and computers,” said Michael Churchill, of counsel for the Public Interest Law Center. “The disparities between well funded and poorly funded districts are greater in Pennsylvania than any other state in the country.  The courts need to tell the legislature to end this inequity.”

Attorneys for the petitioners are asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to permit a full trial on the merits of the case, reversing a 2015 Commonwealth Court decision that dismissed the case. This will allow the petitioners to present evidence that the General Assembly has violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund Pennsylvania’s public schools and leaving children without the resources they need to succeed academically. The petitioners that brought the case include seven parents, six school districts – William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley – the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.  The Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center-PA are representing the petitioners.

Following the hearing, a large, spirited rally took place on the north side of City Hall.  Speakers and attendees included State Senator Vincent Hughes, representatives from the parent and school district petitioners, Councilwoman Helen Gym, clergy from Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), advocates from Education Voters of PA and the NAACP, and attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center-PA.

While Pennsylvania recently adopted a school funding formula – which the attorneys for the plaintiffs acknowledge is a step in the right direction – only 6% of the state’s basic education dollars are driven out through that formula and state education funding levels overall remain wholly inadequate to meet the needs of students.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision of the appeal sometime after the oral argument, although there is no specific deadline.

More information, including case documents, can be found here: http://edfundinglawsuit.wordpress.com/

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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness.  For more information visit https://elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to improve the well-being and life prospects of vulnerable people by ensuring they have access to fundamental resources including a high-quality public education, health care, employment, housing, safe and healthy neighborhoods and the right to vote. For more information visit www.pubintlaw.org or follow on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.

Join us May 2 in Harrisburg for the Fight for Fair Funding

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Public schools in Pennsylvania are a far cry from the “thorough and efficient” system of education guaranteed under our state constitution. Years of neglect and stagnation in Harrisburg have left our children waiting for far too long. Budget cuts have forced school districts around the state to make dramatic changes. Without librarians, guidance counselors, nurses or even enough teachers, our students are suffering.

That’s why we want YOU to join Education Law Center and members of the Campaign for Fair Education Funding in Harrisburg on May 2nd! Register now to reserve your spot on a free bus from Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, PA.

WHO: The Campaign for Fair Education Funding

WHAT: Rally for Fair Education Funding

WHERE: The Main Rotunda at the State Capitol, Harrisburg, PA

Buses of supporters are leaving from Pittsburgh and Philadelphia.

WHEN: Monday, May 2, 12:30 p.m.

(Buses from your respective locations will leave at various times that morning)

Click the link below to reserve your spot in the fight for fair education funding!

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We hope to see you in Harrisburg on May 2nd! Need assistance registering? Email Spencer Malloy at [email protected].

Op-Ed: Proposed changes to Pa. law would squander higher school funding

Jan. 20, 2016 – the Philadelphia Public School Notebook – by Michael Churchill, Deborah Gordon Klehr, Susan Spicka

Earlier this month, Gov. Wolf approved emergency funding to allow schools to remain open despite the ongoing budget impasse in Harrisburg. We are pleased that the governor is holding out for an agreement with legislative leaders that would result in a historic $350 million increase in basic education funding, which would include a $100 million restoration of funding to Philadelphia schools. This money would provide immediate relief to a cash-strapped district and would allow it to begin restoring cuts to nurses, counselors, and other vital services after years of bare-bones budgeting.

Yet those gains could be fleeting.

We are deeply troubled by language that has been inserted into the proposed Pennsylvania School Code that would enact sweeping changes to our state charter school policy. The changes would weaken the important role of school districts as charter authorizers to both manage responsible charter school growth and ensure that charter schools are providing a high-quality education to all kinds of students.

To be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, fiscally distressed school districts must balance requests for charter expansion with the fact that every new charter school costs districts money and siphons resources away from children who remain in traditional public schools. Indeed, the School District of Philadelphia would have to set aside $35 million of the $100 million in additional funding it would receive under the previously agreed-upon budget framework simply to cover additional payments to charter schools.

The proposed school code language contains provisions – in effect directed only at Philadelphia — requiring five schools a year to be designated for takeover by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. At least two, and possibly all five, would be converted to charter schools.

The irony, of course, is that Philadelphia’s schools are already controlled by the state. There’s no evidence that this move will improve results – but it is sure to worsen the District’s structural deficit.

Additional language applicable to every school district in the state would weaken local districts’ ability to provide effective oversight of charter school operators to ensure that charter expansion occurs in sustainable ways and that charter operators deliver quality education to their students. It would enable charter schools across the state to amend the terms of their charters, create cross-district charter school networks, open new buildings, add new grades, and expand enrollment – all without the authorization of local school boards. It would also reduce accountability by allowing charter schools to go a full decade before having to renew their charters.

Taken together, the school code as written is a Trojan horse, destroying what it purports to save.

Our calculations show that these provisions could increase costs to districts so much that even with increased revenues, this budget deal could result in a net loss for the School District of Philadelphia in as little as 36 months.

Thus even as lawmakers in Harrisburg continue to complain that Philadelphia schools need to live within their means, they are pushing legislative language that would continue to burden the district with costly new mandates that only dig the District into a deeper financial hole.

At the same time, they fail to recognize that Philadelphia schools educate far more students in poverty, English language learners, and vulnerable students than almost all districts in the state. Roughly 85 percent of Philadelphia schoolchildren come from poor families – compared with a statewide average of 43 percent.

Even worse, there are rumblings in Harrisburg that lawmakers, skittish about raising taxes to support increased investment in our schoolchildren in an election year, may attempt to abandon substantial education funding increases while continuing to pursue this aggressive pro-charter language. This would leave Philadelphia with greater expenses and more cuts in services for its students.

The governor should make it clear that this would be unacceptable.

The important question about the role that charter schools should play in our educational system deserves its own broad and wide-ranging debate and should not be swept into the budget negotiations as a price that Philadelphia pays to get past funding cuts restored. The Philadelphia delegation should carefully review the costs of additional funding in deciding what to support.

There’s still time to make things right. As lawmakers return to Harrisburg to resume negotiations on a budget solution, these destructive proposed provisions should be eliminated from the school code.

Our lawmakers must instead refocus on passing a budget that contains at least $350 million in new basic education money to help restore school funding cuts and that begins to implement a new funding formula that rationally and fairly distributes education dollars. Only then can we embark on a long-term, sustainable solution that begins to right the School District’s finances and reflects our commonwealth’s values by beginning to provide every child with the resources needed to succeed.

Michael Churchill is an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.

Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

Susan Spicka is an advocacy coordinator for Education Voters PA.

Fair funding campaign analyzes Pa. budget proposals

October 16, 2015 – The Philadelphia Public School Notebook  – by Catherine Offord

The Campaign for Fair Education Funding (CFEF), a statewide coalition of more than 50 organizations, recently released a report on the implications of the education proposals being debated in Harrisburg.

The report, “Lifting All Students: Why Pennsylvania Must Act Now to Fairly Fund Public Education and Secure Our Future,” details the practical outcomes for school districts across the state under both the $410 million funding increase in Gov. Wolf’s proposed budget and the $100 million increase proposed by Republican legislators.

“This report was an effort to make clear what is at stake if we get a truly robust education funding formula and an influx of funding this year,” said Ian Gavigan, policy and communications associate at the Education Law Center, a leading member of CFEF.

“It was an effort to ground the discussion in what actually happens in each district.”

In June, the campaign endorsed a fair funding formula proposed by the Basic Education Funding Commission. Although the formula has received general support in Harrisburg, debate continues over exactly how it should be implemented.

“The formula divides out the money, but it doesn’t dictate how much money is actually put in,” said Michael Race, vice president of communications at Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children.

The report supports Wolf’s plan to complement the formula’s introduction with extra funds, helping to close large funding gaps among Pennsylvania’s school districts.

Philadelphia, one of the districts hit hardest by the 2011 budget cuts, would benefit significantly. The report predicts a boost of $120 million more from Wolf’s proposal than what Republican legislators are suggesting.

“We’re regularly in Harrisburg, pushing legislators on this issue, presenting this report and other data about increasing equity and adequacy in schools,” said Gavigan, adding that he hopes both legislators and advocates will be able to use the research.

Race agrees. “Ultimately, we want it to be useful to lawmakers,” he said. “The next steps are not only ensuring that the formula is adopted, but that it’s maintained and not dismantled in future years. Then it’s a matter of ensuring that there are sufficient resources put into the formula to actually get districts what they need to educate students.”

http://thenotebook.org/articles/2015/10/16/fair-funding-campaign-analyzes-pa-budget-proposals

Save the Date: August 6th School Funding Forum in Pittsburgh

School Funding Forum in Pittsburgh, PA

Thursday, August 6th, 2-4pm

With Hear Me and our western PA partners in the Campaign for Fair Education Funding, the Education Law Center is convening a school funding forum with a focus on the most at-risk students. Join us to hear stories of students directly impacted by a lack of education resources and to discuss the latest updates from Harrisburg. While school funding issues impact all children, we hope this forum will kick-start a dialogue on what school funding means for the most at-risk students whom ELC serves, including students experiencing homelessness or in foster care, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

Location: Gates Hillman Center at Carnegie Mellon University, room 8102. Suggested parking is in the East Campus Garage; here’s a map of walking directions from the garage to the room.

The event is free and open to the public. To join us, please email Staff Attorney Cheryl Kleiman at [email protected].

The ABCs of school-funding formulas

Pennsylvania is one of just three states in the country that lack such a formula, a situation that has led, experts say, to the single most inequitable system of allocating education dollars in the nation. But that might change if a proposal by a bipartisan commission created during the Corbett administration is adopted.

Continue reading

Suit challenging school funding headed to top Pa. court

April 21, 2015 – by Kristen A. Graham and Martha Woodall, Philadelphia Inquirer – A lawsuit contending that Pennsylvania’s system of school funding is broken will move to the state’s top court, attorneys vowed Tuesday after a lower court dismissed the case brought by school districts, parents, and advocates. Continue reading

Pennsylvania schools face funding, construction challenges

May 12, 2014 – Editorial, Allentown Morning Call – Pennsylvania faces a long-term challenge in public education and economic development. Current policies are defining the haves and have-nots statewide. It’s not good for students, and it’s bad for local economies.

However, the angst being heard in some communities may help to explain the election-year momentum and optimism for changes to public school funding in Harrisburg. With bills moving through the Legislature to address basic education funding and school construction, minds are changing all the way up to the governor’s mansion.

There are two foundational state funding streams that schools depend on — basic education funding for operations and school construction dollars.

Read the full editorial