Today, a landmark case challenging Pennsylvania’s public education funding formula and highlighting the jaw-dropping disparities between wealthy and poor school districts goes to trial. And it is no small miracle that it is finally being heard, since this suit is a threat to the state budget — and the political power of wealthy school districts. Via the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The lawsuit — brought seven years ago by six school districts, including Delaware County’s William Penn; parents, including one from Philadelphia; and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP-Pennsylvania State Conference — alleges Pennsylvania’s school funding is both inadequate and inequitable, violating the state constitution.
At the heart of the case are wide gaps in resources between school districts — the product of a long-ingrained funding system that relies more heavily on local taxes than all but six other states and that plaintiffs say discriminates against children and burdens taxpayers in lower-wealth communities. Lower Merion, for instance, has more than $31,000 to spend per student because it can reap more in property taxes — even at lower rates — compared with poorer districts like William Penn, which has $18,000 per student.
Plaintiffs contend the funding system disproportionately harms children of color: Half of Pennsylvania’s Black children and 40% of Hispanic children live in the poorest 20% of districts.
“It’s a story where children who need the most often get the least,” said Mimi McKenzie, legal director of the Public Interest Law Center, which filed the lawsuit in 2014 along with the Education Law Center. Besides William Penn, the five other districts suing are the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District, the Shenandoah Valley School District, and the Panther Valley School District north of Allentown.
The outcome could have a huge effect on property taxes, which system has clearly fallen short in the responsibility to provide a fair and equitable education for each student:
The trial, which is being heard by a Commonwealth Court judge in Harrisburg, is being closely watched by schools statewide. “It would be a game-changer to this community,” said Upper Darby Superintendent Dan McGarry, whose district has $16,000 to spend per student — in the bottom 10% statewide — despite taxing residents at one of the highest rates in the state.
State Republicans, of course, blame the students for outcomes — even though fairer funding has been shown to improve academic performance
As a former newspaper editor in a suburban county with a wide range of state funding, let me tell you a story.
I assigned a reporter to do a “compare and contrast” story between the wealthiest district in the county, and one of the lowest. She came back and told me there was “no difference.”
She said the PR person for the wealthy district explained to her that the poor district had a higher cost per pupil than they did. The rich district just did a better job with all that money!
As someone who’s covered her share of school board budget hearings, I knew this was a common trick. I sighed.
“Did they break out the funding streams?”
The reporter looked puzzled.
“You need a line-item budget. You need to see which funds are for basic services, and which funds are remedial and limited to that by federal law. You also need to compare the funding for each district’s gifted program.”
She went back to the PR person, who told her there were “just as many books” in the poor district’s library as there was in the wealthy one.
“What is the average age of the books in the poor district’s library?” I asked.
She went to my boss and complained. He took her off the story, and a few years later, she got a job as the new PR person for that wealthy district.
And so it goes.