Education advocates hope that a lawsuit will force the state to do what they allege it’s failed to do for far too long — fairly fund public schools.
The lawsuit has been languishing in state court for years but it’s finally scheduled to go to trial in Commonwealth Court this year.
The lawsuit, first filed in 2014, on behalf of six school districts including the Greater Johnstown Area School District, is seeking to get the state courts to rule that Pennsylvania’s funding for schools is unconstitutional because it’s inadequate and unfair, said Kristin Moon, an attorney with the Education Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs.
An analysis completed as part of their lawsuit concluded that the state would need to spend another $4.6 billion to fairly fund schools statewide.
Advocates argue that because the state has been providing too little funding, those local school districts have been forced to raise taxes when they can.
That “creates these outrageous disparities” in school funding between well-to-do and poorer districts, Moon said.
Representatives of Republican leaders in the House and Senate said they are hoping that the courts don’t side with the education advocates.
Krystjan Callahan, chief of staff to Senate President Pro Tem Jacob Corman, R-Centre County, said that school funding “and the way in which the funding is distributed to schools, is fundamentally a question of policy for the legislature to weigh and determine.”
The funding formula was developed by a bipartisan process and signed into law by the governor, she said.
“It would be inappropriate to speculate as to what the court may decide or where it may go in this case. However, the liberals who control the Pennsylvania Supreme Court have shown they are willing to implement their far-reaching and transformative political views by legislating from the bench,” said Jason Gottesman, a spokesman for House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff, R-Centre County.
Gov. Tom Wolf is in his budget proposal released last month, called for the General Assembly to dramatically overhaul the state’s personal income tax -- increasing the tax rate on higher earning individuals and families to generate billions to close the funding gap between the state’s wealthy and poorer school districts.
Wolf’s plan would direct all of the state’s funding for schools through a Fair Funding Formula created in 2016 and add $1.5 billion in a cushion so no school loses it by the change in the formula. The funding formula has only been used to calculate new funding added each year since 2016, meaning that only about 11% of state funding for schools has been getting distributed under that formula, according to the governor’s office.
Members of the General Assembly immediately balked at Wolf’s proposal.
The groups involved in the lawsuit said they welcome Wolf’s plan but they intend to go to trial anyway to try to get the courts to force the state to tackle the school funding issue.
“With intervention from the courts, we’ll be able to break the impasse” between Wolf and Republicans who hold the majority in both chambers of the General Assembly, Moon said.
Moon said that similar strategies have worked in other states.
“Lawsuits like ours have brought in more revenue than the state would otherwise have directed,” she said.