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November 13, 2014

On November 10, 2014, Pennsylvania students and parents, school districts, and two statewide associations filed a lawsuit charging that the state's school funding system deprives students of their right to a "thorough and efficient" education, as guaranteed by the state constitution.

The lawsuit comes in the wake of devastating cuts to teachers, support staff, programs, and essential resources in Philadelphia, Reading, York, and many other high-poverty rural and urban communities across the state.

The Plaintiffs who filed William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al. (Wm. Penn SD v. PA DOE) include the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP - Pennsylvania State Conference (NAACP-PA).

The Pennsylvania Constitution requires the General Assembly to "provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth." In the first cause of action, the complaint alleges that the defendants have violated that provision by adopting an irrational means of financing public education that drastically underfunds school districts across the Commonwealth and ignores the state's own funding targets.

According to the complaint, the Commonwealth has known for nearly a decade that Pennsylvania's schools are badly underfunded. In 2006, the State Board of Education conducted a comprehensive statewide costing-out study to determine the "basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the State's academic standards and assessments." The study concluded that 95% of the Commonwealth's school districts required additional funding, totaling $4.4 billion. In response, the General Assembly approved a bill that established funding targets for each school district and a formula for distributing education funds in a manner that ensured all students would have the resources necessary to meet state academic standards. Beginning in 2011, however, state officials abandoned the funding formula, reduced funding to districts by more than $860 million, and passed legislation to prevent local communities from increasing local funding.

The complaint alleges that these actions have had devastating consequences for students, school districts, and the future of the Commonwealth. Districts across the state are unable to provide students with the basic elements of a quality education, including sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and staff, appropriate class sizes, suitable facilities, and up-to-date text books and technology. Plaintiff school districts, the districts that individual plaintiffs attend, as well as many other districts across the Commonwealth, are drastically underfunded---some by more than $4,000 per student per school year.

Lacking these essential resources, the complaint avers, many students are unable to meet even basic academic standards. Specifically, many students are unable to achieve basic proficiency on the Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment exams, which measure student performance in reading, writing, math, and science. Nor are they prepared to pass the new, more rigorous Keystone Exams, which measure student proficiency in math, science, and English, and will soon be a requirement for graduation from high school.

Overall, more than 300,000 of the approximately 875,000 students tested in Pennsylvania were unable to meet state standards last year, the complaint alleges. Thus, by the Commonwealth's own standards, more than one-third of all Pennsylvania's children are receiving an inadequate education and are unprepared to enter the workforce or pursue post-secondary education. Plaintiffs allege that this underfunding and consequent underperformance has created a system of public education that is neither "thorough" nor "efficient," nor "serves the needs of the Commonwealth."

In a second cause of action, the complaint alleges that the current way in which the Commonwealth funds public education denies students equal educational opportunities by creating gross funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts. Per-pupil spending on education ranges from as little as $9,800 per student in school districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in districts with high property values and incomes, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education's 2012-13 data. As a result, children in property- and income-poor districts are being denied the opportunity to receive an adequate education, unlike their peers in property- and income-rich districts.

As a remedy for these constitutional violations, the lawsuit asks the court to declare the current funding system unconstitutional and to require the state to establish a new funding arrangement that provides adequate, equitable, and rational funding to school districts to enable all students to meet state academic standards and participate meaningfully in the economic, civic, and social activities of our society.

Defendants include the PA DOE, the legislative leaders in both houses of the legislature, the Governor, the State Board of Education, and the Acting Secretary of Education.

National Trend

The inadequate funding of public education in Pennsylvania is representative of a national problem affecting millions of vulnerable school children across the country, triggering school funding lawsuits in many states, including Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Kansas, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, South Carolina, Texas and Washington.

"Pennsylvania's elected leaders, by consistently and dramatically underfunding public education, have failed in their constitutional obligation to give every student the opportunity for academic success," said David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center. "The students have rightfully turned to the courts as a last resort. We urge state officials not to wait but to act now by putting in place a funding formula that delivers adequate resources for all schools."

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said, "Pennsylvania is not alone in denying adequate funding for its students, especially those in high poverty school districts. But, Pennsylvania is one of the worst offenders in the nation. The Commonwealth has created an educational caste system that it 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 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," Mr. Henderson added, "and to take decisive corrective action on the findings."

Related Stories:
Civil Rights Groups Urge Governor Corbett to Release Philadelphia School Funding and Restore Equitable School Funding Statewide
Pennsylvania Retreats from Fair School Funding
Education Justice Press Contact:
Molly A. Hunter, Esq.
Director, Education Justice
email: mhunter@edlawcenter.org
voice: 973 624-1815 x19

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