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School Funding Lawsuit Still Unresolved

Districts allege that local property tax system is unfair to poorer, smaller school systems

By Danielle M. Smith - Public News Service
The Tube City Almanac
August 16, 2022
Posted in: State & Region

School buses sit in a garage during the summer vacation. (File photo by Jason Morrison via Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-2.0.)

After eight years, the Pennsylvania school-funding lawsuit is in the hands of a judge, creating a waiting game heading into the new school year.

Oral argument ended in July.

In 2014, six Pennsylvania school districts 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.

Instead, Pennsylvania currently relies on local funding for schools — mostly in the form of property and wage taxes — more than almost any other state, said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center.

Her organization advocates shifting the funding system to recognize the very different needs of different communities.

Klehr said students of color are disproportionately affected in underfunded districts in low-wealth communities, where they lack such basics as functioning school libraries and up-to-date textbooks.

“The inadequate resources prevent many Pennsylvania students from meeting academic standards set by the state,” Klehr said. “The state legislature has an obligation to ensure that every student, not only those living in select ZIP codes, receive the basic resources they need.”

Klehr added Pennsylvania has one of the widest gaps between low-wealth and high-wealth school districts in the nation. A typical high-wealth district in the commonwealth spends about $4,800 more per student than a low-wealth district, and the gap has been growing.

With trial proceedings are over, Klehr acknowledged the judge's decision may take some time, and predicted it may not signal the end of the battle.

“We are confident about our case,” Klehr said. “But whatever the outcome, an appeal by the losing side is likely, to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.”

Klehr noted the General Assembly does not have to wait for the outcome of the case. It has a legal obligation under the state constitution to solve the school-funding crisis as soon as possible.

Wolf recently announced his administration had increased education funding by more than $3.7 billion since 2015, including a $1.8 billion increase for the coming school year.

Klehr said it is an important confirmation of the spending levels needed in coming years.

“Those kinds of increases will need to be sustained in the years ahead to help get local districts to adequate, equitable levels of funding,” Klehr said. “And bring Pennsylvania up from the bottom in the share of education funding that is provided by the state.”

Danielle M. Smith is a producer for Public News Service, where this story first appeared. An award-winning radio journalist/personality with more than a decade of experience in broadcast media, she is a former audio journalist with American Urban Radio Networks and Sheridan Broadcasting Networks who also hosts a weekly community affairs show “Good News” on WGBN (1360 AM/98.9 FM).

Originally published August 16, 2022.

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