Published in the Center City Citizen Review Philadelphia PA March 2017
By Joseph Batory
The betrayal of Pennsylvania public schools by the State legislature began in the early 1990’s when Pennsylvania government consciously destroyed its Equalized Subsidy for Basic Education (ESBE) formula. That method of State funding had been successfully used to bridge the wide gaps between poorer and more affluent school districts. The ESBE formula each year had utilized factors of community wealth and pupil population to drive out annual subsidies to school systems that distributed State money equitably based on each school district’s affluence and pupil population. Unfortunately, the growing costs of this ESBE formula to the State budget, despite its positive impacts, caused cowardly politicians fearing necessary tax increases to eliminate the ESBE funding formula. This result has been that over two decades, billions of dollars in State subsidies have been denied to school districts across the Commonwealth.
Pennsylvania now has the widest disparities in the nation in spending among its wealthiest and poorest districts with pupils who live in poverty and need the most getting the least, while students in wealthier districts live with all sorts of educational and school enhancements. This legislative incompetence has created a system where the gaps of per-pupil spending among Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts are now enormous, ranging from $9,800 to $28,400.
In September of 2016, attorneys representing seven school districts appeared before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court seeking judicial intervention in education funding in Pennsylvania. Commonwealth Court had dismissed this case last year.
The lawsuit contends that the State is not fulfilling its Constitutional duty as specified: “to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” and that the resulting inequalities violate “equal rights protections.”
Pennsylvania courts have previously dismissed challenges to the legislature’s inadequate funding of public education using the argument that legislative matters are beyond review by the courts. However, NB—in 27 other states, the courts have intervened in similar circumstances and forced responsible behavior from state legislatures.
Incredibly, a representative of the Commonwealth made this outrageous argument before the Supreme Court in September: “No individual child has any specific right to an education at all. The Constitution requires the State only to set up a system…” According to this State representative, Pennsylvania has no responsibility to give children an adequate education or a quality education, but just to make sure schools exist.
City Councilperson Helen Gym termed this State position as “a deplorable argument that should shock the sensibilities of every Pennsylvanian. … One, that education is not a right – (It is in fact!) – and, Two, that inequity is not only inevitable, it is unfixable…”
Helen Gym could not be more on point: The Pennsylvania Constitution’s wording clearly stipulates “maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” as a State responsibility.
Yet children in some Pennsylvania school districts have lavish swimming pools, while others graduate from schools without ever having used a computer or seen a library, attorney Brad Elias, representing several school districts, parents and civil rights groups, told the Supreme Court.
While states on average contribute a 45% share of public education funding, Pennsylvania’s share is at about 36%, ranking the Commonwealth 45th in the USA in terms of State support for education.
The Commonwealth’s political betrayal of its own public schools is a national disgrace. It remains to be seen if the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has the political will to correct this malfeasance.