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Districts allege state’s funding system is unconstitutional; trial began in November
Pennsylvania’s school funding trial will enter its fourth week in Commonwealth Court on Monday.
Testimony so far has provided an inside view into the difficult decisions faced by educators in the state’s low-wealth districts with minimal resources.
In 2014, six Pennsylvania school districts—William Penn, Greater Johnstown, Lancaster, Panther Valley, Shenandoah Valley and Wilkes-Barre Area—sued state legislative officials, state education officials and Gov. Tom Wolf, alleging that the state’s school funding system violates the clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution that promises to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.
The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-Pennsylvania State Conference and a group of public school parents are also plaintiffs in the lawsuit.
The districts and other petitioners are represented by the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania, the Public Interest Law Center and the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers.
Pennsylvania ranks 45th for the share of kindergarten through Grade 12 school funding provided by the state.
Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said as a result of receiving less funding from the state, districts are expected to rely on support locally through property taxes.
But she pointed out it can be a challenge, as evidenced by last week’s testimony from Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio, who said the most recent property tax increase led to less funding for the district than before.
“State lawmakers for years have said everything that is going on in our school districts is the result of local decision-making,” Spicka said. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break this logjam in Harrisburg that has allowed the legislature to continually underfund their schools.”
Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said testimony last week from superintendents showed when districts are underfunded, some students will be left behind when making hard financial choices.
“We heard from a school district that has 1,200 students in its elementary school, but there are only two reading specialists,” Gordon Klehr said. “So when the state does not provide these poor school districts with adequate funding, they’re forced into making unimaginable choices.”
Pennsylvania public schools are $4.6 billion short of a state benchmark for adequate funding, according to Penn State professor Matt Kelly, who testified in the trial in November.
This week’s testimony is expected to include officials from the School District of Lancaster and the deputy secretary of the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning. The trial is expected to continue through January.
Emily Scott is a reporter and producer in Philadelphia for Public News Service, where this story first appeared. She previously worked at WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station and is a 2018 graduate of Temple University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies.
Originally published December 12, 2021.