On the heels of the election ousting Republican incumbent Tom Corbett in favor of his challenger, Democrat Tom Wolf, for Pennsylvania governor, a coalition of six school districts, parents, an association of rural and small school districts, and the Pennsylvania state conference of the NAACP have filed suit against the state challenging its “irrational and inequitable” school funding scheme as unconstitutional. The complaint, captioned William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, alleges that the state impermissibly discriminates against children in property poor districts and denies these children both their constitutional right to an adequate education and their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws. Plaintiffs are petitioning the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania to declare the school funding scheme unconstitutional and to enjoin the state defendants from enacting any other funding schemes that “irrationally discriminate against children who live in school districts with low property values and incomes.”
Mindful of similar lawsuits that were dismissed by the state supreme court in the late 1990s on separation of powers grounds, plaintiffs in this case explicitly tie the concept of an adequate education to state academic standards established by legislation and regulation. Plaintiffs allege that defendants are well aware that the current school funding scheme does not provide all children in the state an equal opportunity to obtain a “thorough and efficient education” as required by Art. III § 14 of the State Constitution. In particular, in 2006 the legislature ordered the department of education to complete a costing-out study which found that 95% of districts in the state needed an additional $4.4 billion in funding to enable their students to meet the state academic standards. Although in 2008 the legislature established funding targets to meet this goal and developed a new funding formula to address per-pupil funding disparities across districts, in 2011 state education funding was drastically cut by more than $860 million, and, legislation was passed limiting the ability of communities to levy additional funds on their own behalves.
The complaint alleges that the state’s actions have created grossly inequitable and unconstitutional outcomes. For example:
During the 2012-2013 school year, over one-third of students in the state (mostly from poor districts) failed to meet certain state academic standards;
Over 50% of students in the state are currently unable to pass the mandatory high school exit exam; and
Per-pupil funding ranges from a low of $9,800 per-pupil in property poor districts to a high of $28,400 per-pupil in high wealth districts (i.e., nearly 3 times more money than is spent in poor districts).
Education funding has been a point of contention in Pennsylvania for a number of years under the administration of Governor Corbett, and was a key issue in the state’s 2014 governor’s race. Governor-elect Wolf, who defeated Corbett in the election earlier this month, has said he will increase education funding during his tenure. The state legislature has also appointed a commission to recommend a new school funding formula by June 2015, but the plaintiffs claim that the commission’s mandate is to discuss how to distribute aid, but not to guarantee that funding levels are adequate or that they are equitable. Moreover, in regard to continuing the lawsuit despite Governor Corbett’s defeat, Michael Churchill, of Counsel at the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, told the National Education Access Network, “This is a long-term problem that is going to require not just the governor’s support to change, but also legislature’s. Our clients had seen no indication that the legislature was about to fix the situation that they had been complaining about for many years. So they decided that waiting was not appropriate.”