Advocates who won education lawsuit call for $2B ‘down payment’ on fair funding

‘We are prepared to go back to court to uphold the rights of those communities,’ Deborah Gordon Klehr of the Education Law Center said

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington discusses school funding in July at South Philadelphia High School

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony Watlington discusses school funding in July at South Philadelphia High School PA HOUSE DEMOCRATIC POLICY COMMITTEE

By Peter Hall

Advocates who fought for and won a historic court ruling declaring Pennsylvania’s education funding system unconstitutional said Thursday that they’re ready to go back to court if state lawmakers and Gov. Josh Shapiro fail to make a significant down payment on a solution.

The Pennsylvania Schools Work campaign, a coalition that advocates for adequate and equitable school funding, said it has asked Shapiro to allocate $2 billion to allow the state’s 412 inadequately funded school districts to begin improvements to instruction and student services. 

That initial investment must be followed by an additional $1 billion each year for four years until the gap between what the school districts receive from the state now and the amount required for a constitutionally adequate education is eliminated, representatives of the coalition said.

The unveiling of the proposal came a week before the Basic Education Funding Commission’s deadline for a report on inequity in Pennsylvania public schools, following three months of hearings last year. 

Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said members of the commission, which includes members of each legislative caucus and the administration, are at a critical juncture where they can advance a transparent and evidence-based plan for a new funding system.

If they choose not to respond to the Commonwealth Court’s order from nearly a year ago, “it will take state officials right back to the court that has already ruled that the system is fundamentally broken,” Klehr said.

“As the attorneys for the school districts, families and organizations that brought this case, we are prepared to go back to court to uphold the rights of those communities,” Klehr said. “We cannot accept a plan that is politically convenient but fails our students.”

In a Feb. 7, 2023, opinion that capped a decade of litigation, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer found that the state’s reliance on local property taxes to fund education means students in poorer communities have fewer opportunities in school. That is at odds with the state Constitution’s requirement for the legislature to pay for a “thorough and efficient system of public education,” Jubelirer said.

Testimony in hearings before the Basic Education Funding Commission largely tracked that in the four-month trial before Jubelirer in 2022. In cities and townships across the state, members heard from educators, advocates, students and an economist who laid bare the depth and breadth of the crisis.

Matthew Kelly, a Penn State professor who analyzed the state’s school funding system, testified that the shortfall is about $6.2 billion – or roughly 20% of what the state currently spends each year.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said that that number was determined by examining the schools that are succeeding as measured by the state’s own goals and targets and what they are actually spending.

“From there, you can have a baseline number for what every school district in the commonwealth should have if they want to have the same success, and that number is $6.2 billion,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said.

Donna Cooper, executive director of the nonprofit Children First, noted that 2024 will be a politically volatile election year, and that state budget negotiations this year will face an additional challenge as pandemic-era federal aid that has been used to supplement education funding expires. 

Cooper cited polling by the Pennsylvania Policy Center that shows voters are aware of the education funding disparity and support increasing spending to correct it. Among 1,274 likely voters, 69% said they believe that public schools require more money. And about two-thirds said they believe the state should do more to ensure schools are sufficiently and equitably funded, the polling shows.

“So this is not just something esoteric that happened in the state courts. It’s the actual experience that Pennsylvania voters have,” Cooper said. She noted that while the economic impact is more pronounced in urban districts, a majority of those surveyed shared the opinion that schools need better funding whether they were in urban, suburban or rural areas and regardless of whether they live in a Republican or Democratic legislative district. 

“Voters are very aware of what’s going on at a pretty high level,” Cooper said.

Peter Hall is a reporter for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared. 

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