Trial sched­uled in Penn­syl­va­nia school-fund­ing case

Plain­tiffs say sys­tem leaves poorer dis­tricts at a big dis­ad­van­tage.

The Morning Call - - STATE/REGION - By Mad­die Hanna

A Com­mon­wealth Court judge has set a trial date for a land­mark case that seeks to over­haul how Penn­syl­va­nia pays for pub­lic schools.

The case, brought by plain­tiffs in­clud­ing the Wil­liam Penn School District in Delaware County, will ten­ta­tively be heard in sum­mer 2020, ac­cord­ing to the order Thurs­day by Judge Re­nee Cohn Ju­bil­erer. Dis­cov­ery in the case is due to be com­pleted by Oc­to­ber.

“We're glad that we're mov­ing for­ward to­wards trial. We re­main con­fi­dent we'll be suc­cess­ful, and hope the leg­is­la­ture will act promptly, but we're pre­pared to go for­ward,” said Michael Churchill, at­tor­ney with the Pub­lic In­ter­est Law Cen­ter.

While Penn­syl­va­nia courts have pre­vi­ously dis­missed chal­lenges to the state's school­fund­ing sys­tem, the law­suit by school dis­tricts, par­ents, and ad­vo­cacy groups was re­vived by the Penn­syl­va­nia Supreme Court last year.

Orig­i­nally filed more than four years ago, it ac­cuses the state of fail­ing to pro­vide enough fund­ing for pub­lic schools, forc­ing dis­tricts to rely heav­ily on lo­cal tax­pay­ers. It also al­leges that the state is dis­crim­i­nat­ing against stu­dents based on where they live, be­cause poorer com­mu­ni­ties have more lim­ited abil­ity to raise money through taxes.

While a state for­mula passed in 2016 re­vised the way Penn­syl­va­nia funded its schools — di­rect­ing ad­di­tional aid to dis­tricts with higher-needs stu­dents and weaker tax bases — it ap­plied only to a frac­tion of what the state spends on ed­u­ca­tion. The spend­ing gap be­tween rich and poor dis­tricts has grown in re­cent years, ac­cord­ing to the plain­tiffs.

And while law­mak­ers and Gov. Wolf have added money for schools in re­cent bud­gets, school district pen­sion ex­penses have risen faster than state aid — mean­ing avail­able money for class­room costs has ac­tu­ally de­creased since 2013, ac­cord­ing to the plain­tiffs.

Law­mak­ers “could take steps to end the huge dis­par­i­ties in fund­ing be­tween rich and poor dis­tricts, and to in­crease fund­ing for the un­der­funded dis­tricts,” Churchill said. The suit asks the court to force the leg­is­la­ture to take ac­tion.

Drew Cromp­ton, a lawyer for State Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem­pore Joe Scar­nati (R-Jef­fer­son), said that “in our view, the ma­jor fix was to do what we did a cou­ple years ago” by form­ing a com­mis­sion to eval­u­ate school fund­ing, pass­ing a new for­mula and im­ple­ment­ing it.

“Clearly, this case is go­ing to take a while,” he said.

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