Published in the Center City Concerned Citizens Review March 2022
By Joseph Batory
The current school funding trial in Pennsylvania is based in the allegation that Pennsylvania’s share of public education funding for many years has violated the Pennsylvania Constitution. The lawsuit states that Pennsylvania students have been denied an equal opportunity to receive an adequate education because the State has used irrational and arbitrary methods of annually financing public education.
The plaintiffs— six Pennsylvania school districts, an association of 150 rural and small schools, as well as parents, children, and the Pennsylvania NAACP— have waited years for their day in court. And that day has finally arrived. Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer currently has been presiding over the trial currently ongoing in the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg
The lawsuit alleges that numerous school districts across the Commonwealth are drastically underfunded and are therefore unable to provide students with the basic elements of a quality education. Many school districts are now lacking in sufficient numbers of qualified teachers and staff, appropriate class sizes, environmentally safe facilities, up to date textbooks, other educational materials, and technology.
The lawsuit names the legislative leaders, the Secretary of Education, the Governor and the State Board of Education as defendants.
Pennsylvania is one of only seven States which generates more than 60% of the funding for public schools via property taxes. As Pennsylvania government has continues to move away from its fair share of public education funding, this has put the burden more and more on local communities to make up for the shortfall in school funding via property tax increases. This has been and continues to be a recipe for disaster as Pennsylvania communities have struggled greatly to generate enough revenue for their school district needs from local property taxes. For most school districts in Pennsylvania even increasing local property taxes has not been sufficient to make up for the State shortfall and only created taxpayer wrath. Meanwhile, the State perpetrators of Pennsylvania’s school funding problems have walked away unscathed.
This overreliance on property taxes in Pennsylvania has also created a myriad of funding disparities between wealthy and poor school districts. According to the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center who are supporting the lawsuit plaintiffs, Pennsylvania’s wealthiest school districts on average spend more than $4800.00 per student that the State’s poorer school systems. As a result, the lawsuit argues that children from “property- and income-poor districts” are being denied the opportunity to receive an adequate education, unlike their peers from “property- and income-rich districts.”
The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has reported that Pennsylvania ranks 44th among all other States in terms of its government share of funding for public schools. This is a national disgrace! Public education funding was once equally shared, 50% from the State and 50% obtained locally. Today, only 38% of the expenses of school districts in Pennsylvania are covered by State funding, creating more and more pressure on local communities to raise property taxes to make up for the State shortfalls.
As a remedy for these alleged Constitutional violations, the lawsuit is asking the court to declare Pennsylvania’s current funding system unconstitutional and to require the State to establish a new funding arrangement that provides adequate, equitable, and rational funding to school districts to enable all students to meet State academic standards and participate meaningfully in the economic, civic, and social activities of our society.
Joseph Batory is a past superintendent of schools in Upper Darby, PA. He is the author of three books and 150+ published articles on politics, education and history.