Community hears update on School Funding Lawsuit-Trial Set to begin Summer 2020

Jerry Roseman of The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. (Photo by Sue Ann Rybak)

Roughly 30 parents, advocates and teachers attended a community meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 12 at the Lovett Memorial Library in Mt. Airy to hear Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a staff attorney for The Public Interest Law Center, discuss the latest developments in the Pennsylvania School Funding Lawsuit.

On Dec. 6, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court released a tentative schedule for hearing the facts in the “William Penn et al. v. Pa Dept. of Ed. et al.” lawsuit. That process will begin with discovery in October of 2019 with final briefs filed in March of 2020. The trial will begin in the summer of 2020.

In 2014, the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center filed the suit on behalf of six Pennsylvania school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the state conference of the NAACP claiming that the state had failed to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education.

It claims that an “unconscionable and irrational funding disparity violates the Equal Protection Clause because it turns the quality of public education into an accident of geography: Children in property-and-income poor districts are denied the opportunity to receive an adequate education, while their peers in property-and-income-rich districts enjoy a high-quality education.”

The plaintiffs argued that by the state’s own standards, it is failing to educate our children.

In 2006, the Pennsylvania Board of Education conducted a comprehensive statewide costing-out study to determine the basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the state’s academic standards and assessments. The study concluded that 95 percent of the Commonwealth’s school districts required additional funding, totaling $4.4 billion.

“We are very confident that we’ll be able to prove to the court that thousands of children in our state are deprived of the education they deserve and that they have a constitutional right to receive it,” Michael Churchill, an attorney at Public Interest Law Center said in a statement. “The school districts that have joined our lawsuit know this is true, and students in underfunded schools know this is true. The legislature has the power to fix this, whether they take before 2020 or wait for us to win at trial.”

While the Commonwealth did eventually implement a fair funding formula in 2016, Urevick-Ackelsberg told meeting attendees that the Basic Education Funding Commission Formula is not adequate because it only applies to new additional education funds.

According to a study by The Public Interest Law Center, roughly $5.54 billion of education funds are distributed through the old formula, roughly $538 million of education funds are distributed through Fair Funding Formula and approximately $3 billion in additional education funding is still needed.

Mt. Airy resident Deborah Grill, who is also a member of Philadelphia Alliance for Philadelphia Schools, was just one of the many attendees at last week’s community meeting.

“We attend all the school board meetings,” she said. “We’ve traveled to Harrisburg several times to fight for funding. Unfortunately, it’s like banging your head up against the wall. The Philadelphia delegation is happy to see you, but everyone else is not, and they make it clear to you.”

Grill added that she hopes the lawsuit will force the legislature to use the Fair Funding Formula for all the educational funding, not just any new additional funding.

Chestnut Hill resident Sarah Bettien-Ash, whose daughter attends Jenks Academy for the Arts and Sciences, said she was “grateful” a trial was finally scheduled for the lawsuit.

“It’s disheartening that the disparity between wealthier school districts and lower income school districts has gotten so large over the years, and the Commonwealth has seemingly been keeping funding from students that may need it the most,” she said. “Equal resources should be granted to all students despite their income level. How do we expect our children to become educated and be contributors to our society when they are not given the proper resources to succeed?”

Urevick-Ackelsberg said even if they win the lawsuit, there will be no immediate fix to this problem. However, he said it would stop the political impasse over funding education by “invoking independent process based on cost analysis,” and increase funding for education, which hopefully will lead to an increase in academic achievement in underfunded schools.

Following his presentation, Jerry Roseman, Director of Environmental Sciences and Occupational Safety and Health for The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Health and Welfare Fund, encouraged attendees to press the City of Philadelphia and the School District of Philadelphia to develop the best practice standards for asbestos, lead, mold and pest control. He discussed City Council Bill No. 18070001, which sets ground breaking standards for the removal and remediation of lead paint in school buildings.

Roseman urged attendees to continue to advocate for the right our children not only for an education, but for the right to learn in a safe and healthy environment.