DN editorial: Court needs to step in, level educational playing field

Students from the Folk Arts Treasures Charter School in Philadelphia march with signs into the 4th floor of City Hall where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is hearing arguments in a case against the commonwealth over school funding.

THIS WEEK, a group of public-interest lawyers spent hours in a courtroom trying to convince the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that the state is failing to meet its obligations in funding public schools.

The justices didn't seem convinced. Lawyers on the other side of the issue - representing the state and the Legislature - argued that the courts had no business getting involved: It was strictly a matter for the Legislature to decide whether Pennsylvania meets the constitutional requirement that it provide a "thorough and efficient system of education."

That was a convincing argument for some of the justices. In comments from the bench, some expressed an unwillingness to have the courts step into the Big Muddy that is the debate over education funding.

We believe those justices are wrong. The central question isn't whether the state provided financial support for the public schools. It is whether the financial aid is used to help achieve equitable funding among the state's 500 local districts.

Clearly, it does not. Education Department data tell us that the top 10 districts spend an average of $25,743 per student, while the bottom 10 spend an average $11,094 per pupil. (Philadelphia, which ranks 338th out of the 500 districts, spends $13,458 per pupil.)

Why the big difference? Mostly it has to do with the wealth of a district, as determined by property values. Some districts can tap into that wealth - via property taxes - to raise more local money for their schools.

These disparities have been around forever. In the past, the role of the state has been to smooth over the differences by providing a larger share of state aid to poorer districts. In short, the state served as the great equalizer, using a distribution formula that took into account local income and poverty.

That system worked reasonably well until two things happened: the state stopped using the formula, and it also decreased its share of bearing educational costs. At one point, the state picked up 50 percent of the cost of operating the schools. Today, it's 34 percent - among the lowest in the nation.

This means local districts must pick up more of the cost of running the schools. It stands to reason that communities such as Lower Merion Township, where the average home sells for $578,000, have an easier time of making ends meet than Chester, where the average home price is $21,000.

Everyone in Harrisburg is aware of this problem, but they refuse to do anything about it. If you pass a formula that seeks to equalize school spending - without increasing state spending on schools - there will be hell to pay politically, especially for legislators with districts that lose state aid.

The Legislature did pass a law last year creating a fairer formula, but it applies only to any new funds allocated by the legislature. This year, the Legislature came up with $200 million more for the schools - and that was distributed under the new formula. The other $5 billion is not part of the new plan.

We have a system of funding based not on need or equity, but on a student's home address.

And the system remains in place because the Legislature lacks the political will to confront the issue.

If the Legislature will not deal with the inequity, who will? We believe the courts must intervene to restore fairness to the system. If they don't do it, it will never get done.

Inaction by the courts will only compound the unfairness, an injustice that will be inflicted upon this and future generations of students.