School-funding system 'broken,' Pa. judges hear

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Michael Churchill

HARRISBURG - Pennsylvania's system of education funding is broken, and the courts must force lawmakers to make it right, attorneys for school districts, parents, and organizations that have sued the commonwealth told a panel of judges here Wednesday.

The suit - brought by school systems, including the William Penn district in Delaware County, and parents, including two from the Philadelphia School District - argues that Pennsylvania's education funding system is "irrational and inequitable."

Lawyers for the state told seven Commonwealth Court judges that to meet its constitutional obligation, Pennsylvania must only keep public schools open.

Not so, countered Michael Churchill, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, one of the groups representing the plaintiffs.

"That's a 19th-century standard of what an adequate school is," Churchill said.

Arguing for the state, Patrick M. Northen said the lawsuit was "somewhat reminiscent of Groundhog Day" because similar cases have been brought unsuccessfully.

But Brad Ellis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said there was a key difference.

In the earlier suits, the court said it could not order changes because there was no way to determine whether students were meeting academic standards. Today, there are state-mandated tests, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Keystone Exams, and those in low-income districts are overwhelmingly failing them.

"If our high school students aren't graduating from high school because they can't meet basic standards set by the legislature, then what are we going to do?" Judge Anne E. Covey asked Northen.

Fixes are in progress, Northen said: Gov. Wolf's proposed budget, which would pump more money into school systems statewide, and a committee studying what a fair-funding formula would look like for Pennsylvania, one of just three states to lack such a formula.

"That's the way this should be resolved," Northen said, "through the political process."

Those remedies are welcome, plaintiffs' lawyers said, but they are not enough.

"We need an ongoing solution to this problem," argued Maura McInerney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

Besides William Penn, the plaintiffs include the Panther Valley School District in Carbon County, the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District in Cambria County, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District in Luzerne County, and the Shenandoah Valley School District in Schuylkill County.

The state NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools also filed on behalf of their members.

The plaintiffs have argued that poor districts simply cannot raise enough money to educate students adequately, and that the state must intervene.

William Penn, for instance, has the highest school-tax rate in the area - much higher than Lower Merion, for instance, where schools fare much better - and its schools still struggle with oversize classes and inadequate supports for students, Superintendent Joseph Bruni said.

"Our students need a long-term solution, and they need it now," Bruni said.

Susan Spicka, whose children attend schools in the Shippensburg Area School District in Cumberland County, said that schools in her area are struggling, and students lose out.

"We can no longer delay in providing them the resources they need to be productive citizens," Spicka said.

One Philadelphia parent who joined the suit said her son's school, Spring Garden Elementary, had lost its Spanish program. The school has a nurse just one day a week. Her son has never been able to take home a textbook, Sheila Armstrong said.

The plaintiffs argued on Tuesday that their case should go to trial on its merits, but they said they expected the matter to land before the state's highest court, Churchill said.

Judge P. Kevin Brobson agreed.

"Really, I think what you need is to get out of here as soon as possible and get to the Supreme Court," Brobson said.

It is not clear when the court will rule on Wednesday's arguments.

 


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