Welcome to Pennsylvania, where a common-sense judgement takes 8 years in court.
And regressive Republicans respond with more illogical nonsense.
A judge in Commonwealth Court finally ruled this week that the state’s school funding system violates the state constitution.
It took school districts, parents, and advocacy groups banding together to file the lawsuit back in 2014, but it was really kind of a no-brainer.
It basically comes down to whether you can provide a mountain of funding to rich kids while throwing a few pennies at poor kids.
Spoiler alert: You can’t.
The reason? The state Constitution guarantees a “thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth” – and cake for rich kids while poor kids get crumbs just isn’t thorough or efficient or meets the needs of the Commonwealth.
The problem is that the state funds schools based heavily on local taxes – so rich neighborhoods can afford to pile on the monetary support while poor ones do the best they can but fall far short of their wealthier counterparts.
If the state paid more of the cost of educating Commonwealth children, this would be less of an issue. But Pennsylvania is 43rd in the country when it comes to the share of revenue for local school districts that it pays.
The result is one of the biggest spending gaps between rich and poor kids in the nation.
Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, a Republican, ruled that this was discrimination. In short:
“…the Pennsylvania Constitution imposes upon Respondents an obligation to provide a system of public education that does not discriminate against students based on the level of income and value of taxable property in their school districts…
The disparity among school districts with high property values and incomes and school districts with low property values and incomes is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective…
[Therefore] Petitioners and students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.”
Unfortunately, no mention was made in the nearly 800-page ruling of exactly how to fix the problem.
The trial began in November 2021 and lasted more than three months. You’d think the judge had time to toss off a line or two about what to do next, maybe that it’s up to the state to take up the slack or something.
Which leaves room for right wing creeps like the Commonwealth Foundation to crawl out from under a rock and give their own nonsense solution.
Enter Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Harrisburg based conservative and libertarian think tank that pushes for the destruction of any common good – especially public schools.
Benefield wrote a response to the ruling praising it for leaving the legislature and executive branch to find a solution, rather than “mandating more money to a broken system.”
Um, Benefield? Buddy? It’s broken mostly because we haven’t paid to keep it in good repair.
But he goes on…
“The only way to ensure that ‘every student receives a meaningful opportunity’ is for education funding to follow the child. Students that are trapped in their zip-code assigned school — especially in low-income and minority communities — often have no alternatives when their academic or social needs are unmet.”
So the solution to not having enough money is more choice!?
I can’t afford to buy breakfast. Having a choice between raisin bran and pancakes won’t make a difference. I CAN’T AFFORD EITHER ONE!!!!
If every district received fair funding, it wouldn’t matter what your zip code is anymore. That’s the whole freaking point!
But look for neofacists and libertools to start spouting this kind of rhetoric at every turn now that they can’t hide behind the old excuse that it’s somehow fair to steal poor kids lunch money and give it to rich kids.
The next step is not entirely clear.
Some think it likely that the state will appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
However, they would have a pretty weak case if they did, said Maura McInerney, an attorney for the plaintiffs.
“The record is very, very clear that local school districts are not adequately resourced,” she said. “I think it would be extremely difficult to be successful on appeal.”
Judge Jubilerer wrote in her ruling that she hoped everyone would work together now to find a solution:
“The Court is in uncharted territory with this landmark case. Therefore, it seems only reasonable to allow Respondents, comprised of the Executive and Legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with Petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein.”
It may sound naive, but it’s happened in other states – specifically New York and New Jersey.
A suit filed in 2014 in New York argued that the state never fully funded a 2007 Foundation Aid program. The program was supposed to consider district wealth and student need in order to create an equitable distribution of state funding.
The Empire State settled in 2021 and is now required to phase-in full funding of Foundation Aid by the 2024 budget.
New Jersey tackled the issue way back in 1981. A state court ruled officials had to provide adequate K-12 foundational funding, universal preschool and at-risk programs.
This made New Jersey the first state to mandate early education. The state also undertook the most extensive construction program in the country to improve the quality of school buildings in impoverished neighborhoods, according to the Education Law Center.
Could such sweeping reforms be coming to the Keystone state?
“For years, we have defunded our public schools at the expense of our students,” said state Sen. Lindsey Williams (D- 38th district), who is the minority chair of the PA Senate education committee. “[The ruling] is game-changing for our students across the Commonwealth.”
Sen. Vincent Hughes of Philadelphia, the ranking Democrat on the state Senate’s Appropriations Committee, said the state can afford a big boost in aid to the poorest schools right now because we have billions of surplus dollars in the bank.
This is exactly what is needed.
During the trial, plaintiffs presented evidence that schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate that they said does not account for gaps in spending on special education, school buildings and other facilities.
Some organizations like PA Schools Work are calling on legislators to act now by adding approximately $4 billion in Basic Education Funding. They even suggest the increase be at the rate of one billion per year over the next four years to make it more feasible. Finally, they propose this money be distributed through the Fair Funding Formula and the Level Up supplement so that it is more equitably distributed to districts in need.
To make matters even more complicated, the state uses an “outdated” formula to calculate how to allocate school funding.
The legislature developed a new formula based on enrollment numbers and how much it costs to educate students who are living in poverty, English language learners, or have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). However, a large chunk of money isn’t distributed using that new formula.
The way I see it, the Commonwealth has a lot of education funding issues to fix.
Hopefully, this ruling finally means we’ve stopped arguing over whether a problem exists and can start focusing on how to solve it.
That, itself, would be a huge victory!
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