HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvania’s public school funding formula is unconstitutionally biased toward richer school districts, which have thrived while poorer districts have suffered, …
HARRISBURG, PA — Pennsylvania’s public school funding formula is unconstitutionally biased toward richer school districts, which have thrived while poorer districts have suffered, according to a sweeping, 550-page filing submitted to the Commonwealth Court earlier this month.
In 2014, six public school districts and various other petitioners filed suit against state legislative leaders, state education officials and the governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional duty to provide students with a “thorough and efficient” system of education. A four-month- long trial concluded in March of this year. All parties recently submitted their post-trial filings, summarizing and reiterating their arguments. However, it could still be months before the court reaches a decision.
Advocates for reform say that the inequity comes from the way taxes are collected in the commonwealth. Public school district budgets are funded in part by the state—which contributes 38 percent—and the rest is covered by property taxes.
Simply put, wealthier neighborhoods collect more in property taxes, while more poverty-stricken neighborhoods collect less. This creates a lopsided situation in which those who require the most funding receive the least. It’s also earned Pennsylvania a number of negative distinctions. The state is home to the nation’s “most inequitable” schools, according to a report in 2018. The plaintiffs say that PA needs to inject $4.6 million into education just to get school districts across the economic spectrum on equal footing.
Last March, River Reporter spoke with Laura Sosik, who teaches second grade at the Scranton School District. Her district is underfunded by more than $4,000 per student, meaning it has about $4,000 less to spend per student than wealthier districts. The district has nearly 10,000 students, 71 percent of whom are economically disadvantaged, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Sosik said she sees the effects of the underfunding every day in her classroom: she has to spend her own money on supplies and she sees vulnerable students lacking mental health support “because we have 900 students and one guidance counselor.” Programs like pre-K, music and the library get cut due to budgetary shortfalls.
She’s one of many teachers directly asking the General Assembly to provide her district with more equitable funding.
“I wish [PA lawmakers] could spend even one day in our district, meeting the kids who are directly impacted by underfunding,” she said. “The students in my classroom aren’t any less capable than the students in other districts… So my wish for Pennsylvania legislators is to recognize the disservice that is being done, and to appropriately fund our schools.”
Attorneys for the state’s Republican leadership, however, have maintained that while Pennsylvania’s funding system might not be “ideal,” it does not rise to the level of unconstitutional.
“This is a constitutional law case,” attorney Patrick Northen, who represented House Speaker Bryan Cutler, told justices during his closing argument. “The question is not how to construct an ideal system, no matter how much it costs, but whether the petitioners have met their burden to prove the current system is unconstitutional. They have not met that burden.”
Representing the school districts and other petitioners, lawyers from the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny said that the evidence presented throughout the historic trial refutes the Republicans’ position.
“As was proven from the first witness to the last, with a raft of evidence that is barely in dispute: the Constitution demands more,” the petitioners wrote in their most recent filing. “The inadequacies and inequities of state funding, and the deprivations and failures children suffer as a result, violate the education clause and the equal protection provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
They are calling for swift and direct action from the court to fix these “inadequacies and inequities,” asking the justices to issue an injunction directing the General Assembly to allocate sufficient funding “to provide a high-quality education to every student.”
“The state legislature’s current system leaves students in low-wealth public schools across Pennsylvania deeply shortchanged, without the basic tools they need to learn and the support they need to reach their potential,” the Public Interest Law Center said in a recent statement. “By failing to provide sufficient state funding for public schools, state legislative leaders have created a two-tiered system, divided by wealth, where the students who need the most get the least.”
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