Parents And School Districts Sue Over Pennsylvania School Funding

| Organize!

Pennsylvania’s constitution states that the General Assembly must “provide a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” Instead, the state has adopted an irrational and inequitable system of funding public education that does not provide the resources students need to meet state standards and discriminates against students based on where they live and the wealth of their local communities. We are taking legal action on behalf of Pennsylvania’s 1.7 million public school students.

On November 10, 2014, we filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court on behalf of six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference against legislative leaders, state education officials, and the Governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a system of public education that gives all children in Pennsylvania the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards and thrive in today’s world. We are conducting this litigation in partnership with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania and a national, private law firm.

The General Assembly has decided what content children need to learn to obtain a quality education, and they know how much it costs for children to acquire that knowledge. But, state officials have failed to ensure that students in all districts have adequate resources to meet these proficiency standards, such as the Keystone graduation exams. The most recent figures from the 2012-2013 school year show that fewer than half of the state’s students were able to pass the Keystone graduation exams and that three-quarters of school districts operated one or more schools that could not meet targets for proficiency on the Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment (PSSA) exams.

In 2011, the Legislature stopped using a funding formula and stopped making any efforts to close funding gaps. School districts therefore are forced to rely heavily on local property taxes, meaning students in low-wealth districts do not have access to the same resources as their peers in wealthier areas. This creates gross disparities and discriminates against students on the basis of where they live: per pupil spending ranges from as little as $9,800 per student in districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in districts with high-property values and incomes.

Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 8.10.13 AM

The plaintiffs are asking the Court to hear from parents, educators and school board members about the impact of the unfair and underfunded system on students. The complaint alleges the Court has the duty to determine whether or not the legislature is supporting a “thorough and efficient system of public education,” as mandated by the state constitution based on the legislature’s own standards. Petitioners are asking for a court order that will force the legislature to comply with the state constitution and ensure all students receive access to a high-quality public education.

FAQs

Q: What is the problem?

A: The state has failed to ensure that essential resources are available for all of our public school students to meet state academic standards.

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, voc-ed and college prep classes, academic tutoring programs, the list goes on. The state must ensure that every student receives these primary elements of education, not only those living in select zip codes.

And despite the tireless efforts of dedicated school leaders, teachers, support staff, and parents, the diminishing resources in too many of our schools prevent too many Pennsylvania students from meeting the academic standards set by the State, including the PSSAs and the Keystone graduation exams.Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 8.09.42 AM

Our state provides a smaller share of the cost of education than almost all other states.  This is a state-level problem that cannot be solved at the local level.

Q: Who is responsible?

The state constitution makes the General Assembly responsible for putting in place a school funding system that delivers the essential resources all students need to be successful in school, including additional help for students at risk of academic failure.

The state has consistently failed to meet this basic responsibility.  Across the state, in urban and rural communities alike, the state is not providing our schools with the necessary resources and tools principals and teachers must have to educate our children for the Pennsylvania of the 21st Century.

Q: Why now?

A: We simply cannot wait any longer to start fixing a system where students do not have basic educational supports and services, such as functioning school libraries, up-to-date textbooks and curriculum materials, reasonable class sizes, guidance counselors, school nurses, voc-ed and college prep classes, and academic tutoring programs. Every year they go without the resources they need is a year lost they cannot get back. We cannot wait any longer for our government leaders to fulfill their responsibilities to Pennsylvania’s children while, in fact, the under-funding of our schools continues to get worse and student performance continues to go down.  We must act now.

Q: What is the legal claim?Screen Shot 2014-11-12 at 8.09.35 AM

A: There are two claims. First, the state has a legal obligation under the PA Constitution to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” for all students.

A “thorough and efficient” public education is one that is adequately supported, effective, and efficient so that all of Pennsylvania’s children have the opportunity to meet state academic standards.

The state has set academic standards that define what is required for a “thorough and efficient” public education, but it has failed to maintain and support the system with enough funding to ensure that every school district has the essential resources for students to meet those standards.

Second, the current method of funding has resulted in significant resource disparities that discriminate against students living in districts with low property values and incomes. This irrational funding disparity violates the Equal Protection Clause of our state constitution because children in low-wealth districts are being denied the opportunity to receive an adequate education, while their peers in high-wealth districts are receiving a high-quality education.

Q: Who is bringing this case?

  • Six school districts: William Penn School District, the School District of Lancaster, Panther Valley School District, Greater Johnstown School District, Shenandoah Valley School District, and Wilkes-Barre Area School District. All of these districts have a high proportion of children in poverty and are unable to raise enough local property taxes to make up for the lack of adequate state funding.
  • The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, a group of about 125 small and rural school districts and a dozen Intermediate Units across PA.
  • Families whose children attend under-funded and under-resourced schools in Philadelphia, William Penn, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown and Shenandoah Valley school districts.
  • The NAACP – Pennsylvania State Conference

Q: Who is being sued?

A: The leaders of the House and Senate, the Secretary of Education and Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the Governor.  They are called “indispensable parties” under the law and must be included in the lawsuit.

While the lawsuit names Governor Corbett and Secretary Dumaresq as defendants, Governor-elect Wolf and any new Secretary of Education will be substituted as defendants when they take office.

Q: What are you asking for in the lawsuit?

A:  We’re asking the court to:

(1) Declare that the current system of funding our schools does not comply with the state constitution; and

(2) 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.

(3) 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.

Q: Wasn’t there a previous lawsuit?

A: The last case was decided fifteen years ago, in 1999.  In that case, the court ruled that it could not address problems with school funding because, at that time, it did not have any manageable academic and other standards by which to measure what students needed to learn and whether they were meeting those standards.

Since the 1999 ruling, the situation has changed. The state has adopted strict academic standards, including the PSSAs for grades 3 through 11, and the newly-implemented Keystone graduation exams.

We are not asking the court to change its 1999 ruling.  Instead, we are showing the court that those manageable standards now exist.

Case Updates

Parents and School Districts File Suit against Pennsylvania State Officials for Failing to Maintain a Fair and Adequate System of Public Education

On November 10, 2014, six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against legislative leaders, state education officials, and the Governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a system of public education that gives all children in Pennsylvania the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards and thrive in today’s world. The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center-PA are representing the petitioners.

“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 Miller, 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?”

According to the complaint, state officials have adopted an irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.

The plaintiff school districts represent the interests of children from across the state including those in rural, urban, and suburban areas. They include the William Penn School District, the Panther Valley School District, the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and the Shenandoah Valley School District. The seven parent plaintiffs are filing on behalf of their children enrolled in one of these districts or the School District of Philadelphia. The NAACP and PARSS are filing on behalf of their members. PARSS members include small and rural public school districts and Intermediate Units.

“Pennsylvania’s state constitution tells us that the buck stops with the state Legislature when it comes to public education. State officials know exactly what needs to be done, but they refuse to do it. We are asking the Court to step in and solve this problem for the future of our children and our Commonwealth,” said Jennifer R. Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. “There is no second chance for children—they cannot go through school all over again.”

According to the complaint, the General Assembly has decided what content children need to learn to obtain a quality education, and they know how much it costs for children to acquire that knowledge. But, state officials have failed to ensure that students in all districts have adequate resources to meet these proficiency standards, such as the Keystone graduation exams. The most recent figures from the 2012-2013 school year show that fewer than half of the state’s students were able to pass the Keystone graduation exams and that three-quarters of school districts operated one or more schools that could not meet targets for proficiency on the Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment (PSSA) exams.

“We’ve had to lay off teachers, support staff, guidance counselors, social workers, reading specialists and coaches,” said Joseph Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District, one of the petitioners in the case. “Classrooms are overcrowded and we had to cut the number of classes we offer children each day. Even though our dedicated teachers and staff are working harder than ever, our children are paying the price and being improperly labeled as failures because the state is not fulfilling its responsibility.”

In 2011, the Legislature stopped using a funding formula and stopped making any efforts to close funding gaps. School districts therefore are forced to rely heavily on local property taxes, meaning students in low-wealth districts do not have access to the same resources as their peers in wealthier areas. This creates gross disparities and discriminates against students on the basis of where they live: per pupil spending ranges from as little as $9,800 per student in districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in districts with high-property values and incomes.

“Pennsylvania’s current practices are denying too many districts the resources they need to teach our kids,” said Joseph Bard, executive director of PARSS. “For example, kids in small, rural areas of the state are legally entitled to the same education as kids in sprawling suburban areas, but we give the Legislature an F in making that happen.”

Hundreds of thousands of students across the state lack basic supports and services such as functioning school libraries, up-to-date textbooks, reasonable class sizes, guidance counselors, regular access to school nurses, vocational education and college prep classes, and academic tutoring programs, among others. Students living in poverty and English language learners in particular face significant challenges without these types of resources.

The plaintiffs are asking the Court to hear from parents, educators and school board members about the impact of the unfair and underfunded system on students. The complaint alleges the Court has the duty to determine whether or not the legislature is supporting a “thorough and efficient system of public education,” as mandated by the state constitution based on the legislature’s own standards. Petitioners are asking for a court order that will force the legislature to comply with the state constitution and ensure all students receive access to a high-quality public education.

“Students and teachers are making concerted efforts to ensure that students acquire needed skills in reading, math and science—but without basic services, too many students now face insurmountable and illegal disadvantages,” said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney for the Education Law Center-PA. “Our state provides a smaller share of the cost of education than almost all of the other states in the country, and our students and our economy are suffering because of it.  We cannot afford to ignore this problem.”

The petitioners are urging parents and citizens to call on their elected officials to fix this problem immediately, noting the legal process will take time and the Legislature has the power and responsibility to implement changes now.

Click here to read the Complaint.