Pennsylvania School Districts Take GOP Leaders to Court Over Increasing Education Funding

Pennsylvania school districts are suing Republican legislative leaders, accusing them of spending less money on education than other states, the Associated Press reported.

The six districts involved in the case say that about 38 percent of the state's budget goes toward K-12 education. The percentage is less than the national average of 47 percent. There are 500 school districts in the state, and those in areas with lower property values and family income are the plaintiffs in the case.

The lawsuit argues that property taxes create "a system of haves and have nots" that sees richer districts spend more on education than poorer districts, resulting in larger class sizes and improper tools in underfunded districts.

They also argue that this inadequate support violates the Education Clause in the state's constitution. This clause requires lawmakers to "provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education."

However, the Republican leaders accuse the districts of fearmongering and creating a "dystopian view of Pennsylvania's education system," according to attorneys representing House Speaker Bryan Cutler, who is listed as a defendant in court filings.

Cutler claimed in a June filing that disparities in spending "are not due to the state spending an unusually [let alone unconstitutionally] small amount of on education in lower-wealth districts, but rather because some high wealth districts simply chose to raise and spend large amounts of local revenues to support their public schools."

Beth Rementer, the press secretary for Governor Tom Wolf, did not say if the administration was taking a side in the lawsuit. However, she said that "the current system of school funding results in some districts whose per-pupil allocations are significantly lower than students in other districts, with resulting inequities in the current system."

The trial is expected to last several weeks.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Dr. Biden
Pennsylvania school districts are suing Republican legislative leaders, accusing them of spending less money on education than other states. Above, first lady Jill Biden visits a robotics lab as she tours Fort LeBoeuf Middle School in Waterford, Pennsylvania, on March 3, 2021. Photo by Mandel Ngan/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

The lawsuit comes seven years after a handful of the state's districts first went to court to challenge a system they consider unfair.

Spending figures and test scores are among a dizzying array of statistics and studies expected as evidence.

"Such grave assessment is disconnected from the actual facts," said attorneys for Cutler.

The trial pits six districts, several parents, the state conference of the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools against the governor, Education Department, education secretary, state Board of Education and the highest-ranking Republican leaders of the House and Senate.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre), one of the defendants, said in a statement last week that the Legislature has always "met our constitutional mandate to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education."

He said the most recent budget raised K-12 education spending by $300 million, and noted the state has received billions in pandemic relief funds designated for schools.

"Pennsylvania currently ranks 7th in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending on education, and school districts are sitting on reserves totaling approximately $4 billion," Corman said. "The idea that the Legislature isn't properly supporting public schools is patently false."

The lawsuit does not seek a specific dollar amount or a particular means of funding schools. No matter which side prevails, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is very likely.

Mimi McKenzie of the Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said a ruling in their favor that the existing funding scheme is unconstitutional would put the issue before the Legislature with guidance from the court about what lawmakers should do.

"And the guidance will be that you can't have these wide disparities between districts," McKenzie told reporters late last week. "That you have to provide resources so that districts can get children college and career ready. That you can't have a system that relies so much on local wealth, such that our underfunded districts, they can't even tax themselves out of this situation because they're already paying relatively high taxes."

In July, the plaintiffs hailed a decision by the presiding judge, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, that allows them to put on evidence that the existing system results in racial discrimination or has a disparate impact on racial or ethnic groups in terms of academic achievement or what she called "spending gaps."

She rejected arguments by Cutler and Corman that that topic should be out of bounds because the lawsuit's original complaint had not contained explicit racial discrimination claims. Jubelirer sided with the plaintiffs' assertion that racial data reflects realities about the system and the data is needed to analyze its fairness.

The case had been dismissed by Commonwealth Court, ruling that school funding was a political question that should not be resolved by the courts, but was revived in 2017 by the state Supreme Court.

Pennsylvania Judicial Center
Pennsylvania school districts are suing Republican legislative leaders, accusing them of spending less money on education than other states. Above, the Pennsylvania Judicial Center, home to the Commonwealth Court, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, on November 6, 2020. AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File