Is it safe to hope?
That’s what I’m wondering as closing arguments are set to begin tomorrow in the historic Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit.
In my home state, public schools have had to band together and sue the legislature for adequate funding.
Though a final decision may not come until summer or fall, it actually seems possible that things could change for the better.
I feel cautiously optimistic that Commonwealth Court will decide in favor of the state’s schools and not the legislature.
But frankly I am also disgusted that it has even come to this.
The schools had to take our own government to court to force lawmakers to pay for kids to get an adequate education.
Can you imagine the kind of person who refuses to care about children?
As a public school teacher and father, I just can’t.
Pennsylvania is one of seven states with a Constitution that specifically requires the state to provide a sufficient education. Some of these other states – like New Jersey – have used similar Constitutional requirements to force their legislatures to increase state funding to public schools.
Specifically, our state Constitution says:
“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
“Thorough and efficient.”
Not lavish. Not extravagant. Just complete and productive.
Yet for nearly 8 years getting to court and for three months, 13 weeks, 48 days in court, the state has argued that it already does that.
It’s one of the most absurd assertions I have ever heard. They might as well argue that water is not wet and fire is not hot.
Walk into any wealthy school in the Commonwealth and look around. You’ll see the equivalent of the Taj Mahal. Now walk into any poor district and look around. You’ll see the equivalent of a slum.
One has brand new facilities, marble columns, and wood paneling scrubbed to a shine with a bustling staff moving to-and-fro.
The other has badly maintained structures, exposed insulation, dusty corners, leaky ceilings and animal droppings while a skeleton crew of adults try their all to do the impossible without the tools to get it done.
The Pennsylvania legislature has been paying less and less of public schools’ budgets over the last four decades. The state used to contribute 54% of all public school costs in the early 1970s. Today it pays just 38% of the cost. Only five states cover a smaller share with the national average at 47%. This leaves local taxpayers to take up the slack. Since districts are not equally wealthy, that increases the disparity of resources between rich and poor districts.
During the trial, the state had tried to argue that money doesn’t matter. Yet poor schools can spend $4,800 less per student than wealthy districts. What’s worse, impoverished students have greater needs than rich ones. They often don’t have books in the home or access to Pre-kindergarten. Poor students often suffer from food insecurity, malnutrition, a lack of neonatal care, worse attendance, are less well rested and have greater special needs and suffer greater traumas than wealthier students. Yet we provide them with fewer resources!?
According to a benchmark written into state law, public schools need $4.6 billion in additional funding just to give students a shot. And 277 districts – whether they be in cities, small towns or suburbs – need $2,000 in additional funding per student to get up to snuff.
This affects the great majority of our children – 86% of students attend schools that don’t receive adequate resources.
But it’s even worse for children of color. Half of the state’s Black students and 40% of the state’s Latino students go to schools in the bottom 20% for local wealth.
John Krill, a lawyer for the state, sees no problem with this disparity. In fact, he argued in favor of it.
In perhaps the most revealing moment of the trial, Krill, who represents GOP Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, asked:
“What use would a carpenter have for biology? […] What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1? […] The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”
So the Commonwealth actually argued that inequitable funding is okay because all kids don’t need a thorough education. Some just need the bare minimum to do whatever menial jobs they’re destined to have while the elite kids need more for the high skilled jobs they’re going to get.
I wonder which kids Krill and his defendants in the legislature think deserve less funding. I’ll bet it’s the black and brown kids already suffering most from this disparity.
Luckily, the school districts asking the courts to intervene feel differently.
Six school districts – William Penn, Lancaster, Panther Valley, Greater Johnstown, Shenandoah Valley, and Wilkes Barre Area – filed the suit along with the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP PA State Conference, and families whose children attend under-resourced schools.
Essentially, they are asking for two things.
First, for the court to declare the current funding system unconstitutional.
Second, for the court to order the legislature to create and maintain a fair funding system.
You might say, wait. Didn’t the legislature adopt a new Basic Education Funding formula in 2016 that already provides a fairer way to allocate money based on need?
And the answer is – yes, it did, BUT this funding formula is hardly ever used. Lawmakers only apply it to distribute new money, and increases have been few and far between. So the lion’s share of education funding is still inequitably distributed. We need to change that, to make sure everyone is getting their fair share AND that the money is adequate for the task.
Gov. Tom Wolf’s 2022-23 budget proposal has already begun to address this.
He suggests a $1.75 billion down payment to schools on the $4.6 billion gap.
The state has the money to do this. It just needs to cut wasteful spending elsewhere and close tax loopholes.
For example, the state throws away $240 million a year to The Race Horse Development Fund. These are taxpayer funded subsidies to wealthy horse racing enthusiasts and hobbyists. Since 2004, the legislature has lavished $3 billion on the horse racing industry. Shouldn’t we prioritize school children over cash prizes and inflated pensions for wealthy horse owners, breeders, and trainers? Aren’t kids more important than paying to drug test horses and for racetrack marketing?
It’s these kind of shenanigans that forced 57% of school districts to increase taxes this year.
If the state was doing its job and looking after kids instead of giving handouts to wealthy oligarchs, you and I wouldn’t feel as much pain in our wallets.
Moreover, local school districts will pay $2.8 billion in charter school tuition this year. Why does the state keep opening these expensive privatized institutions that have less fiscal accountability than our authentic public schools? Again the ideology of far right lawmakers is funded by you and me with our tax dollars.
So what’s next after closing arguments this week?
Both parties in the case will file a series of post-trial briefs saying what they believe they proved during the testimony, the “conclusions of law” they are asking the judge to reach, and their analysis of the legal questions presented—such as the meaning of the state Constitution’s “thorough and efficient” education clause.
The final post-trial brief is due on July 6. Then — after oral argument on legal issues at a later date — the court will make its final decision weeks or months later.
In the meantime, the budget is supposed to have been approved by the legislature (one way or another) and signed by the Governor by June 30. If not, funding for some state programs may be delayed. But you never know. The legislature has been late on this before.
So what am I learning from all of this?
The value of hope?
The evil of lawmakers who want to continue shortchanging our children?
The bravery of public school districts that challenge the state to follow its own darn rules?
All of the above.
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