School funding inequity in hands of Pa. courts
They won the battle. Now they need to win the war. There were plenty of smiles Wednesday as families, educators, activists and others gathered at Penn Wood High School to celebrate a huge court victory — and a win for all those across Pennsylvania who have complained for years about the inequity in the state’s system of funding public education.
These are the people who know first-hand what it means to receive an inferior education for no reason other than your zip code.
That was the basis of a lawsuit filed against the state Department of Education by William Penn School District, a local family and several districts across the state. Unfortunately, the suit was initially tossed out by Commonwealth Court, which ruled that education funding was solely the domain of the state Legislature.
But the state Supreme Court demurred, and sent the case back to Commonwealth Court.
It did not decide in favor of the plaintiffs’ argument. In effect, it ruled that those who have complained for years about education funding in Pennsylvania at a minimum deserve their day in court and the chance to make their argument.
That is what brought the group to Penn Wood High this week to celebrate.
“Today we celebrate a victory for all children in Pennsylvania who go to school districts that know what services the children need, but don’t have enough money to provide these services,” said Tomea Sippio-Smith, the education policy director for Public Citizens for Children and Youth, which has long advocated against the current funding system.
Now the hard part starts. The plaintiffs need to prove the centerpiece of their claim – that the current system is unconstitutional in that it fails to meet the requirement that the “General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth,” according to the state constitution.
In Pennsylvania, “thorough and efficient,” much like funding, means different things to different people.
Fortunately, those who brought the suit have plenty of ammo. For years the state has fostered a system that relied on local property taxes to pick up the bulk of the tab for local education. As the state gradually moved away from its goal of picking up 50 percent of education costs, the burden on local property owners, and local school districts multiplied.
Unfortunately, for many local school districts in impoverished areas with struggling economies, that created a built-in barrier that amounted to a lesser education for no other reason than a family’s zip code. Their tax hikes did not raise the same revenue as similar hikes in wealthier neighborhoods in some instances just a few miles away.
Nearly 48 percent of William Penn students live in poverty, while local tax revenue per student accounts for 55 percent of combined state and local revenue. In more well-to-do Radnor, that local tax revenue accounts for 85 percent of the share. That translates to an additional $7,915 per student in Radnor.
Even the state realized this. A few years back the Legislature approved a Fair Funding Formula to rectify some of the inequities built into the system. Created by a special bipartisan group of legislators, the new plan would deliver more revenue to districts such as William Penn that demonstrated a greater need. In short, the Fair Funding Formula delivered more revenue to where it was most needed, based on a variety of factors.
The problem is that it only did so for new revenue designated in the budget, not the state’s basic education funding formula.
A study done in 2016 by the Public Interest Law Center indicates Radnor spends $23,134.07 per student, as compared to $15,633-113 per student in William Penn.
Similar results are seen in lower-income districts across the state.
The result? An unequal, unbalanced playing field that offers an inferior education.
Perhaps even worse was a recent report by Equity First, a watchdog group headed by a former state legislator that keeps tabs on education spending in the state, that suggest not only that many districts such as William Penn continue to be underfunded, incredibly many districts that are actually overfunded, only tilting the playing field that much steeper.
The result can be seen in every facet of education, most notably technology, where lower-income districts struggle to keep pace and offer equipment that is taken for granted at wealthier.
At districts such as William Penn and many others across the state, nothing is taken for granted.
Aside from the fact that they get a lesser education for no other reason than where they live.
The Supreme Court made the right call.
These districts deserve their day in court.
Not only that, but they deserve an equal education, as guaranteed them by the state Constitution
We look forward to them making exactly that case in court.