April 2, 2021–Public school students in Pennsylvania will soon have their day in court. A Commonwealth Court order released April 1 has tentatively scheduled a trial start date of September 9, 2021, in a historic lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s school funding system.
Attorneys expect the trial to last several weeks. The trial dates will be set at a pretrial conference on June 21, the order said.
“For a generation, Pennsylvania legislators have refused to live up to their constitutional responsibility to fairly fund public schools so that all students, no matter their zip code, are equipped with tools and skills they need,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “Pennsylvania’s status quo wastes and devalues the endless potential of our children. Trial in this case means that leaders in Harrisburg will no longer be able to stick their heads in the sand: they can, and must, support strong public schools for all.”
The school districts, parents and organizations who filed the case are represented by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and O’Melveny.
Trial in this case means that leaders in Harrisburg will no longer be able to stick their heads in the sand: they can, and must, support strong public schools for all.
The petitioners held a press conference live via Zoom at 1 p.m. on April 2, and released a video about the case.
Parent petitioner Tracey Hughes of Wilkes-Barre, whose son is a recent high school graduate, said the lack of resources impacted both the physical conditions in her son’s schools and the support students received.
“There were only two guidance counselors for about 1,000 students,” Hughes said. “The district could not provide students with remedial help, and summer school was only available for students who failed a subject. When my son needed academic support his school couldn’t provide, I had to hire a math tutor at my own expense, but I couldn’t afford to continue it.”
Petitioners allege that the Pennsylvania General Assembly has violated the state’s constitution by failing to provide adequate and equitable state funding for public education, leaving hundreds of thousands of students without the basics because of where they live.
According to US Census data, Pennsylvania currently ranks 44th in the nation in the share of school funding that comes from the state, at 38 percent, leaving school districts heavily reliant on local wealth. As a result, the poorest Pennsylvania school districts on average spend $4,800 less per pupil than wealthy school districts, despite paying higher property tax rates. This gap, one of the widest in the nation, has steadily grown.
“Students in districts like mine are not worth any less than students in any other district in Pennsylvania,” said Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Amy Arcurio. “But every year, we are unable to provide support that we know will help our kids prepare for careers and higher education, solely because we don’t have the local funds to pay for it. With this lawsuit, we can change that—we can end the hunger games that the General Assembly has put on for a generation.” Greater Johnstown is one of six school districts bringing the lawsuit.
An expert report prepared for the court by Penn State Professor Matthew Kelly found that public schools need $4.6 billion in additional funding to be able to give their students a shot at reaching state academic standards, using a funding benchmark written into the Pennsylvania School Code. This underfunding is widespread: 86% of Pennsylvania students attend schools that are not adequately funded according to this calculation. This underfunding also exacerbates inequity—Kelly’s report found that students in poverty who attend poorly funded schools are significantly less likely to attend and graduate from college than their peers in well-funded schools.
The state’s dependence on local wealth to fund schools, and the resulting deep inequality, disproportionately affect students of color. Black and Latino students are concentrated in the least wealthy districts, with 50 percent of Black students and 40 percent of Latino students attending schools in the lowest 20 percent of local wealth.
“For decades, the future of Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren has been predetermined by local wealth rather than our children’s potential,” said Education Law Center legal director Maura McInerney. “Our state lawmakers have left generations of students behind in unsafe schools, with outdated textbooks—deprived of the basic resources they need to learn. This trial will change that by requiring the legislature to equitably and adequately fund all of our schools to serve all our students. We will prove that the General Assembly created this problem and is mandated by our state constitution to fix it.”
Petitioners in the case are six school districts (William Penn, Greater Johnston, City of Lancaster, Panther Valley, Shenandoah Valley, and Wilkes-Barre Area), the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA, and five public school parents.
The case was filed in 2014 in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court against state legislative leaders, state education officials, and the governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s state constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.