Advocates hope a landmark seven-year school funding lawsuit will prompt the state’s Supreme Court to order the General Assembly to come up with a plan to address long-standing inequalities that plague students in districts too. poor people to overcome inadequate state funding.
The lawsuit was first filed in 2014 on behalf of seven school districts, including the Greater Johnstown Area School District, and parents of students in those districts.
The trial is due to start in September and is expected to last for weeks.
In preparation for this trial, lawyers for the Republican legislative leaders have asked Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer to bar lawyers across from presenting evidence of the disproportionate impact of the funding system. state schools on students of color.
In doing so, they argued that if the complainants had wanted to cite racial data, they should have indicated their intention to do so when they initially filed the complaint. When the lawsuit was originally filed, allegations of unfair funding were based solely on the claim that poorer school districts were being wronged.
“The petitioners have strategically chosen to limit their claims to those based on the wealth of the school district, they should not be allowed to present unrelated evidence of racial discrimination or disparate impact that has little or nothing to do with it. with the claims asserted in the petition, “Patrick Northern, an attorney representing Republican House legislative leaders, wrote in a legal document filed in the case.
Friday, the judge had not ruled on this request.
Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of school districts and parents, said it had always been clear race would be a factor raised in the case. In addition to school districts and parents, two organizations are listed as complainants, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP.
“The NAACP State Conference certainly has the right to present evidence as a petitioner in our case to explain how their members are significantly and disproportionately harmed by the Pennsylvania school funding system,” she said. “If there is anything that is clear in our Constitution, it is that our public school system must work for all students, including black and brown children, who have been deeply affected by entrenched inequalities. They are more likely to be educated and underfunded in schools and to be denied educational opportunities, ”she said.
Funding relies on local dollars
A key point of controversy in the case is how the funding of Pennsylvania schools has relied heavily on local tax money, meaning that students who live in districts that cannot afford to compensate for the lack of state funding struggle to provide the same level of education. that wealthier school districts can offer.
“Pennsylvania is near the bottom of the states in terms of state support for public education,” said state representative Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, minority chair of the education committee of bedroom. “It has led to disparities,” he said.
The state contributes only 38% of school spending in Pennsylvania, with local school districts responsible for the lion’s share of the rest, according to data released in May by the US Department of Education. Local districts provide 56 percent of the funding and the federal government provides the remainder.
Only five other states provide a smaller share of their school revenues – Connecticut, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Texas – provide a smaller share of school revenues, according to federal data.
The national median is 48%, McInerney said.
Among neighboring states:
• Ohio provides 39 percent of the cost of education;
• New York provides 40 percent of the cost of education;
• Maryland and New Jersey both provide 43 percent of the cost of education;
• West Virginia provides 55 percent of the cost of education;
• Delaware provides 65 percent of the cost of education.
State Representative Jim Rigby of R-Cambria County, whose district includes the Greater Johnstown Area School District, said since taking office in 2019, he felt the school district had been successful in securing additional government funding. He noted that Johnstown was one of 100 school districts, identified as the poorest in the state, to share $ 100 million in additional Level Up funding in this year’s budget. Greater Johnstown schools received almost $ 900,000 from the Level Up boost.
After being contacted by a reporter about the trial on Friday, Rigby said he called Greater Johnstown area school district superintendent Amy Arcurio to discuss the case.
“I can understand where they are coming from,” he said. “It shouldn’t depend on your zip code to determine if your kids will be ready to graduate from college,” he said.
Ed Albert, executive director of the association of rural and small schools, said that while welcome, the state’s decision to increase funding for poor schools shows that everyone recognizes that the state is not providing them. enough.
“As far as I’m concerned, their decision to donate money to Level Up, they kind of raised their hand,” Albert said, adding that 34 of the 100 poor school districts that received Level Up funding are members of his organization.
The increase in funding has not kept up with rising costs, including the crippling costs of tuition fees in cyber schools, which the General Assembly has not faced either, he said. declared.
“We appreciate” the increased funding, he said. “But it didn’t make a hole. This landscape has not changed at all, ”said Albert.
Pennsylvania is by no means the only state where education advocates have gone to court to force their states to tackle unfair and inadequate funding for schools, McInerney said.
One of the landmark cases dates back to 1979, when a West Virginia court concluded that the state’s education system should be “to prepare (students) for useful and happy occupations, recreation, and citizenship.” .
More recently, in Washington state, courts in 2012 ruled that the country’s education system was unconstitutionally in breach of its obligations to students.
“The High Court held that the word ‘education’ itself signified the basic knowledge and skills necessary to be competitive in today’s economy and to participate meaningfully in the democracy of the state.” , McInerney said. She hopes the Pennsylvania case will result in an equally strong directive for the General Assembly to deal with funding for schools, she said.