School fund­ing in­equity in hands of Pa. courts

The Community Connection - - OPINION -

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.

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