November 10, 2014; Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and The Morning Call

Claiming that Pennsylvania has failed to provide necessary support for equal education for all students, six PA school districts and a group of parents have joined the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the state NAACP in filing a lawsuit against the PA Department of Education, Governor, PA Secretary of Education, PA Speaker of the House and PA Senate President Pro Tempore.

At the heart of the lawsuit is the belief that the current public education funding system is irrational and gives an unfair advantage to students in higher income school districts. The suit claims “children in property- and income-poor districts are denied the opportunity to receive even an adequate education, while their peers in property- and income-rich districts enjoy a high-quality education.” And with the state’s high academic standards for student performance, the plaintiffs believe that funding disparities and the resultant differences in per-pupil expenditures across the state—ranging from $9,800 to over $28,400 per student, according to 2012-2013 data—give rise to unequal opportunities for students to meet these state education requirements.

While not recommending a funding formula or amount to be spent on education, the suit asks for the current funding system to be declared in violation of the state constitution and replaced with one that does not discriminate against students in low-income districts.

Though similar suits in PA were dismissed in the late 1990s due to the court’s inability to measure student learning needs and requirements, the plaintiffs have reason to believe that this lawsuit could have different results. Since the earlier rulings, Pennsylvania has adopted the Keystone Exam to standardize the education level students must attain to graduate. According to the current lawsuit, over 50 percent of PA students are unable to pass the Keystone Exams. The legislature also has since considered a 2007 study on the money needed to provide adequate education to students as a benchmark in determining the necessary state funding to be contributed to public education.

Pennsylvania has increased funding to public schools since the previous lawsuits. In 1997, the spending in public schools was $13.7 billion and has since risen to $27.6 billion in the 2012-13 fiscal year. Yet while PA is above average in the amount of funding to public education, the money is disproportionately disbursed among recipients, according to a study published by the American Institutes for Research and commissioned by the William Penn Foundation. 

The PA lawsuit also comes just several months after the U.S. Department of Education launched the Excellent Educators for All Initiative, aimed at helping states and school districts to provide high education standards to all students through quality educators, including those in low income school districts. In reference to the Initiative, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said,

All children are entitled to a high-quality education regardless of their race, zip code or family income. It is critically important that we provide teachers and principals the support they need to help students reach their full potential. Despite the excellent work and deep commitment of our nation’s teachers and principals, systemic inequities exist that shortchange students in high-poverty, high-minority schools across our country. We have to do better. Local leaders and educators will develop their own innovative solutions, but we must work together to enhance and invigorate our focus on how to better recruit, support and retain effective teachers and principals for all students, especially the kids who need them most.”

As a result of the initiative, states are required to evaluate whether or not students in their school districts have equal access to quality educators and administrators across income levels—and quality educators across income levels can be directly linked to the school funding distribution system being debated in Pennsylvania. Through the comprehensive educator equity plan that must be submitted to the U.S. Department of Education by April 2015, Pennsylvania’s response to the Excellent Educators for All Initiative should be interesting to watch in light of this new lawsuit.—Michele Bittner