State’s high court hears school fund­ing chal­lenge

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - NEWS - By Maryclaire Dale

PHILADEL­PHIA >> Ed­u­ca­tion re­form­ers asked Penn­syl­va­nia’s high court Tues­day to make state law­mak­ers re­vamp an “un­con­scionable” school fund­ing sys­tem that leaves poor stu­dents to go home at night with­out text­books and grad­u­ate from high school with­out ever us­ing a com­puter.

“(Law­mak­ers) have fallen down ter­ri­bly. They have not done their jobs,” lawyer Brad Elias ar­gued for a group of par­ents and school dis­tricts who want the fund­ing plan de­clared un­con­sti­tu­tional. “The en­tire sys­tem is just ar­bi­trary.”

Sev­eral jus­tices ap­peared re­luc­tant to “mi­cro­man­age” law­mak­ers who di­vide more than $10 bil­lion in an­nual aid to Penn­syl­va­nia’s ap­prox­i­mately 500 school dis­tricts, and al­ready de­vote more than half that bud­get to the 125 poor­est dis­tricts. But one won­dered if re­form­ers shouldn’t at least get to air their griev­ances at trial.

Elias said that Penn­syl­va­nia had the na­tion’s largest fund­ing gap be­tween low- and high-in­come dis­tricts, given that par­ents in wealth­ier zip codes sup­ple­ment the school bud­get with prop­erty taxes and other funds that dwarf what low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties could raise. The bud­get per stu­dent ranges from about $10,000 to $28,000 across the state, the plain­tiffs said.

That means that stu­dents who need the most re­sources get the least, said Elias, who called the sys­tem “un­con­scionable.”

Demo­cratic Gov. Tom Wolf has raised ed­u­ca­tion fund­ing by about $350 mil­lion this school year and steered more funds to low­in­come dis­tricts. Still, he joined the Repub­li­can-led leg­is­la­ture in call­ing school fund­ing a political prob­lem that should be re­solved at the state­house, not the court­house.

“The court can­not de­ter­mine what con­sti­tutes an ad­e­quate ed­u­ca­tion,” lawyer Pa­trick Northen ar­gued for leg­isla­tive lead­ers be­fore a Philadel­phia City Hall court­room packed with pol­i­cy­mak­ers and par­ents.

The jus­tices did not in­di­cate when they would rule on the is­sue, which has long been a con­tentious one across the coun­try.

Courts in 27 other states have waded in to the school fund­ing de­bate, Elias said, most re­cently in Con­necti­cut, where a judge ap­palled by dis­par­i­ties be­tween in­ner-city Bridge­port schools and neigh­bor­ing ones in up­scale Fair­field last week or­dered a leg­isla­tive fix within six months.

Elias wants the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court to like­wise find the fund­ing sys­tem un­con­sti­tu­tional.

“So you want us to lean on the state leg­is­la­ture? I’m not sure that’s our role,” Jus­tice Max Baer said.

The panel of four men and three women feared wad­ing into “le­gal quick­sand” if they ac­cept the chal­lenge of find­ing a so­lu­tion to the school fund­ing and achieve­ment gap. They ques­tioned whether spend­ing the same amount per child would pro­duce equal out­comes, a co­nun­drum that other states have faced as they moved to­ward a pro­gres­sive fund­ing struc­ture.

A lawyer for the state Ed­u­ca­tion Depart­ment com­plained that re­form­ers want the court to seize con­trol of a third of the state’s $31 bil­lion bud­get.

Elias said the state needs to pro­vide dis­tricts the funds needed to en­sure that all stu­dents can pass the bi­ol­ogy, al­ge­bra and other tests now re­quired to grad­u­ate high school in Penn­syl­va­nia. He said that fund­ing is “not a zero sum game” given that wealth­ier dis­tricts can raise ad­di­tional money for new build­ings and pro­grams.

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