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November 04, 2021

Pennsylvania's school funding could be revamped by civil trial that begins next week

The William Penn School District claims the state has failed to guarantee an adequate and equitable education to all students

Education Lawsuits
Pennsylvania State Capitol Dan Rainville/USA Today Network

A lawsuit filed by the William Penn School District and five others claims inadequate funding has placed an unfair burden on students from low-income districts and created a disparity in access to quality education. Above, the Pennsylvania Capitol.

Six school districts, including the William Penn School District in Delaware County, sued state lawmakers in 2014 for what they say is a severe underfunding of the public school system. After a seven-year court battle, the case is headed to trial Nov. 12. 

The lawsuit alleges the state has failed to ensure all students receive an adequate and equitable education, as guaranteed by the state constitution. It claims inadequate funding has placed an unfair burden on students from low-income districts and created a disparity in access to quality education. 

The school districts are being represented by the Pennsylvania chapter of the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center – both nonprofit education advocacy groups – and O'Melveny, a national litigation firm. They are seeking a revamp of the current public school funding plan, which they say relies too heavily on property taxes. 

Though a 2020 report issued by the national, New Jersey-based Education Law Center found Pennsylvania ranked fourth in the United States for per-pupil spending during the 2016-17 school year, the plaintiffs note that most of that funding comes from property tax revenue. Only 38.6% of education funding came from the state in 2017-18, with nearly 55% coming from local sources. 

Pennsylvania's "disproportionate reliance on local wealth" has led to a $4,800 per-pupil funding gap between poor and wealthy school districts, according to a report Penn State education professor Matthew Kelly prepared last year for the plaintiffs. Less affluent districts are at a disadvantage because their tax bases are not strong enough to close the gap, even though their property tax rates are often higher. 

Kelly's report found that Pennsylvania schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, according to funding metrics outlined in the state's basic education funding plan. Many districts are underfunded by more than $4,000 per student.

The William Penn School District was more than $28 million short of the state's benchmark for basic adequacy, with the average student shortchanged $4,836, according to the report. 

The School District of Philadelphia, which is not one of the districts involved in the lawsuit, was more than $1.1 billion shy of the benchmark, with the average student shortchanged $5,583 annually.  

The lawsuit initially was rejected by the Commonwealth Court, which ruled the suit's claims were outside the realm of jurisdiction for the courts. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated the lawsuit in 2017, ruling it was unfair to expect the General Assembly "to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate." That decision allowed for the upcoming trial. 

The Department of Education, which was under the control of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett when the lawsuit was filed in 2014, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

The state has made efforts to increase public school funding in recent years. The most recent education budget included a 4% increase in basic education funding. 

Some Republican lawmakers have stood by the Commonwealth Court decision that public school funding is a legislative issue, not a judicial one. 

"Crafting a budget, including education funding, is constitutionally a legislative matter that we take very seriously," Neal Lesher, the spokesperson for former Republican House Speaker Mike Turzai told the Inquirer in 2018. "We continue to believe that this matter does not belong in the courts."

Republicans also have argued that the case is no longer relevant because a new funding formula for basic education has been adopted since the lawsuit was filed in 2014. 

"Because petitioners persist in challenging a statutory scheme that is no longer operative, this case is moot," Joe Scarnati, former president pro tempore of the state Senate, wrote in a 2018 brief following the Supreme Court's decision. "And, because none of the exceptions to the mootness doctrine apply here, this court should dismiss the case." 

The plaintiffs also include the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, Pennsylvania's NAACP chapter and several parents. The other five school districts involved with the lawsuit are the School District of Lancaster and the Panther Valley, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley school districts.

The trial is expected to last several weeks, perhaps even into the beginning of 2022, according to FundOurSchools PA, an advocacy campaign operated by the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center. Witnesses will begin to testify on Nov. 15. The court's livestream of the trial will be available on FundOurSchools PA's website.