This piece was originally published in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
July 24, 2021 — In the article “Massive boost in state education funding is not much help to Franklin Regional” (July 14, TribLIVE), Franklin Regional School District Finance Director Jon Perry suggested that a ruling in the school funding lawsuit headed for trial this fall could cause his district to lose revenue.
I am one of the attorneys leading the case, William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., with my colleagues at the Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center-PA. One thing should be made clear: Our lawsuit does not seek to take resources away from any school district in Pennsylvania that needs them.
We are representing six districts that are challenging the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s failure to live up to the state Constitution’s mandate that it “maintain a thorough and efficient” public education for all students. Instead, Pennsylvania has built a system of state education funding where the kids who need the most get the least, because they live in poor communities. This affects students in every region of the state, including Southwestern Pennsylvania.
The solution we are hoping for in our case is simple. Pennsylvania should determine what resources kids need — like reading specialists, safe buildings and up-to-date science labs — for a quality public education that prepares them for college and career. And the General Assembly should provide the state funding necessary so that every student can receive that quality public education, whether or not they live in a wealthy community that is able to raise the needed funds with local taxes.
Our case is not about simply changing the way state funding is distributed. If you’re having a party with 100 guests, one pizza is not going to be enough, no matter how fairly you slice it. The pie needs to be bigger.
Pennsylvania ranks 45th in the nation in the share of school funding that comes from the state, leaving local taxpayers to pick up the slack. This overdependence on local wealth fuels high property taxes and creates deep rifts between wealthy and poor districts, which spend $4,800 less per student than their more affluent neighbors, among the widest disparities in the nation.
What about the state’s funding formula? Merely redistributing Pennsylvania’s current inadequate state funding entirely according to the fair funding formula would be a disaster for many struggling school districts in Western Pennsylvania with shrinking populations — districts that often serve high numbers of students in poverty. Every district but two in Westmoreland County would lose revenue.
But disaster has already arrived in many low-wealth districts with growing populations. These districts do not even receive their fair share of current state funding and are forced to pay some of the highest property taxes in the state while cutting staff and programs that their students desperately need.
This is why we are demanding that the General Assembly make sure public schools have what they need to provide a high-quality education — not just that they figure out the best way to distribute paltry state funding between districts.
For three years between 2008 and 2011, the Legislature did at least calculate the resources that schools need for their students to have a shot at reaching state academic standards, creating an “adequacy benchmark” that is still in state law. It can be done.
As part of our lawsuit, Penn State professor Matthew Kelly ran the numbers for this long-ignored benchmark. Statewide, each year public schools need at least $4.6 billion more to adequately educate our children. Every district in Westmoreland County is underfunded according to this benchmark for adequacy. Out of 17 districts in the county, nine have a shortfall of more than $2,000 per student. But those gaps can be closed with a plan for long-term investment over time. That is why every resident of Westmoreland should be rooting for this legal challenge to be successful.
By failing to determine and provide what kids need, our leaders in Harrisburg are giving up on the potential of hundreds of thousands of kids all over Pennsylvania who live in low-wealth communities from the Laurel Highlands to the Lehigh Valley. It is past time to change that. The trial starting Sept. 9 will allow students and communities to finally force the Legislature to live up to their constitutional duty.
Learn more about the case at FundOurSchoolsPA.org.