Trial could force school funding overhaul

TANNER MONDOK | HeraldState Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, talks with Reynolds High School student Hunter Markle, 17, in March of 2020. Longietti is minority chairman of the state House Education Committee. 

Advocates hope a landmark school funding lawsuit seven years in the making will prompt the state Supreme Court to order the General Assembly to come up with a plan to confront long-standing inequities that short-change students in districts too poor to overcome inadequate state funding.

The lawsuit was first filed in 2014 on behalf of seven school districts, including the Greater Johnstown Area School District, and parents of students in those districts.

The trial is due to begin in September — and is expected to last weeks.

In preparation for that trial, attorneys for Republican legislative leaders asked Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer to bar attorneys from the other side from introducing evidence about how the state’s system of school funding disproportionately impacts students of color.

In doing so, they argued that if the plaintiffs had wanted to cite racial data, they should have indicated their plan to do so when they originally filed the lawsuit. When the lawsuit was originally filed, the allegations of unfair funding were based solely on the assertion that poorer school districts were being shortchanged.

“Petitioners strategically chose to limit their claims to those based on school district wealth, they should not be permitted to introduce unconnected evidence of racial discrimination or disparate impact that has little or nothing to do with the claims asserted in the Petition,” Patrick Northern, an attorney representing House Republican legislative leaders, wrote in a legal document filed in the case.

As of Friday, the judge hadn’t ruled on that motion.

Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center, which filed the lawsuit on behalf of the school districts and parents, said that it’s always been clear that race would be a factor raised in the case. In addition to the school districts and parents, two organizations are listed as plaintiffs, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP.

“The NAACP State Conference certainly has a right to present evidence as a petitioner in our case to explain how their members are significantly and disproportionately harmed by Pennsylvania's school funding system,” she said. “If there is something that is clear in our Constitution, it's that our public school system must work for all students, including black and brown children, who have been deeply impacted by entrenched inequities. They're more likely to be educated and underfunded schools and denied educational opportunities,” she said.

Funding relies on local dollars

A key point of controversy in the case is the way Pennsylvania school funding has relied heavily on local tax dollars, meaning that students who live in districts that can’t afford to compensate for the lack of state funding struggle to provide the same level of education that richer school districts can offer.

“Pennsylvania is near the bottom of states in terms of state support for public education,” said state Rep. Mark Longietti, D-7, Hermitage, minority chairman of the House education committee. “That’s led to disparities,” he said.

The state contributes only 38 percent of school spending in Pennsylvania, with local school districts responsible for contributing the lion’s share of the rest, according to data released in May by the U.S. Department of Education. Local districts provide 56 percent of the funding and the federal government provides the rest.

Only five other states provide a smaller share of their schools’ revenue — Connecticut, Nebraska, New Hampshire, South Dakota and Texas — provide smaller shares of school revenue, according to federal data.

The national median is 48 percent, McInerney said.

Among neighboring states:

• Ohio provides 39 percent of the cost of education;

• New York provides 40 percent of the cost of education;

• Maryland and New Jersey both provide 43 percent of the cost of education;

• West Virginia provides 55 percent of the cost of education;

• Delaware provides 65 percent of the cost of education.

State Rep. Jim Rigby, R-Cambria County, whose district includes the Greater Johnstown Area School District, said that since he took office in 2019, he’s felt like the school district has fared well in getting additional state funding. He noted that Johnstown was one of the 100 school districts, identified as the poorest in the state, to share $100 million in additional Level Up funding in this year’s budget. The Greater Johnstown schools got almost $900,000 from the Level Up boost.

After being contacted by a reporter about the lawsuit Friday, Rigby said he called Greater Johnstown Area School District superintendent Amy Arcurio to talk about the case.

“I can understand where they’re coming from,” he said. “It shouldn’t depend on your ZIP code to determine whether your kids are going to graduate college-ready,” he said.

Rural schools

Ed Albert, the executive director of the association of rural and small schools, said that while welcome, the state’s move to give a boost in funding to poor schools demonstrated that everyone acknowledges the state’s not been providing them enough.

“As far as I'm concerned, their move to give money for Level Up, they just kind of tipped their hand,” Albert said, adding that 34 of the 100 poor school districts that got Level Up funding are members of his organization.

The increased funding hasn’t kept pace with increased costs, including the crippling costs of cyber school tuition, which the General Assembly also hasn’t confronted, he said.

“We appreciate” the increased funding, he said. “But it didn't make a dent. That landscape hasn't changed at all,” Albert said.

Similar cases

Pennsylvania is by no means the only state where education advocates have gone to court to force their states to tackle unfair and inadequate school funding, McInerney said.

One of the landmark cases originated in 1979, when a West Virginia court concluded that the state’s educational system should be “prepare (students) for useful, happy occupations, recreation and citizenship.

More recently, in Washington state, the courts found in 2012 that the education system there was unconstitutionally failing to meet its obligations to students.

“The High Court held that the word ‘education’ itself meant the basic knowledge and skills needed to compete in today's economy and meaningfully participate in the state's democracy,” McInerney said. She hopes the Pennsylvania case results in a similarly strong directive for the General Assembly to confront school funding, she said.

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