Six school districts, seven parents, and two statewide associations sued the commonwealth of Pennsylvania on Monday, claiming legislative leaders, state education officials, and the governor have failed to uphold the state's constitutional obligation to provide a system of public education that gives all children the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards and "participate meaningfully in the economic, civic, and social life of their communities."
According to the complaint (pdf), "state officials have adopted an irrational and inequitable school financing arrangement that drastically underfunds school districts across the Commonwealth and discriminates against children on the basis of the taxable property and household incomes in their districts."
"The disparity in education resources has created an educational caste system that the Commonwealth must eliminate."
—Wade Henderson, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights
As a result, the plaintiffs claim that hundreds of thousands of students throughout the state lack basic educational supports and services—functioning school libraries, up-to-date textbooks and curriculum materials, reasonable class sizes, guidance counselors, school nurses, vocational-ed and college prep classes, academic tutoring programs, and more.
"My child is in classes with too many other students and she has no access to tutoring services or support from paraprofessionals, but our elected officials still expect and require her to pass standardized tests," said Jamela Millar, parent of 11-year-old K.M., a student in the William Penn School District. "How are kids supposed to pass the tests required to graduate high school, find a job and contribute to our economy if their schools are starving for resources?"
The state NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools joined the suit on behalf of their members. Urban, suburban, and rural districts are represented among the plaintiffs. While the state-run Philadelphia School District did not join the legal action, two Philadelphia parents are part of the suit and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers issued a statement in support on Monday.
According to the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which is litigating the case along with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and a national, private law firm, the lawsuit requests that the court:
- Declare that the current system of funding [Pennsylvania] schools does not comply with the state constitution; and
- Order the defendants to cease using a funding system that does not provide adequate funding where students can meet state standards and which discriminates against low wealth districts.
- Order the defendants to create and maintain a constitutional school funding system that will enable all students to meet state academic standards and does not discriminate against low-wealth school districts.
"It's a shame that it has come to this," lawyer Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "It is really only because of the starkest failures that we are taking this step to force the legislature's hand by going through the courts."
But could it work?
Philadelphia Magazine, which calls the suit "potentially momentous," offers a partial answer:
Could the Supreme Court really order the state to come up with billions of dollars of new funding for public education? New Jersey's Supreme Court did. In 1990, the court ruled that the state had provided inadequate and unequal funding for students in urban districts, a ruling that led in part to a $2.8 billion tax hike. Now, urban districts in New Jersey are as well or better funded than their suburban counterparts, an investment that has yielded mixed results.
But New Jersey's judiciary has historically been far more progressive and activist than has Pennsylvania's. Securing new funding and a new formula through the courts is likely to be a far more difficult proposition for educative advocates here.
The Allentown Morning Call reports:
Lawsuits in the late 1990s challenging Pennsylvania's education funding system were defeated.
The court previously ruled that it could not address problems with school funding since it did not have any manageable standards by which to measure what students needed to learn and whether they were meeting those standards, according to the attorneys in the new lawsuit.
Two key factors have changed since that ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs said.
First, a costing-out study in 2007 showed how much money the state believed schools needed to provide a thorough education. Though the Legislature initially attempted to fund education to that level, it abandoned those plans, according to the suit.
Second, the introduction of the Keystone Exams created a standard of what students need to learn to graduate. Currently, more than 50 percent of students are unable to pass the Keystone Exams, the suit claims.
The inadequate funding of public education in Pennsylvania is representative of a national problem affecting millions of school children across the country, triggering similar lawsuits in many states, said Wade Henderson, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.
"Pennsylvania is not alone in denying adequate funding for its students, especially those in high poverty school districts," Henderson said. "But this case shows that Pennsylvania is one of the worst offenders in the nation. The disparity in education resources has created an educational caste system that the Commonwealth must eliminate. We will continue to take action to vindicate the state constitutional rights of all students to an education that prepares them for citizenship and the workforce. We also call on the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Pennsylvania for the glaring inequity in essential education resources in schools serving poor and minority school children and to take decisive corrective action on the findings."
While outgoing Republican governor Tom Corbett—named in the suit—came under fire for his deep cuts to basic education services, Democrat Tom Wolf, who unseated Corbett last week, has said he will restore education funding and enact an equitable funding formula.