School districts in Pennsylvania sue state over education funding

Reuters News
Posted: Nov 10, 2014 4:37 PM

By Daniel Kelley

PHILADELPHIA (Reuters) - Six Pennsylvania school districts and a group of parents sued the state on Monday, charging that funding for education discriminates against children based on the wealth of their school districts.

The system of funding violates the state constitution because it mandates high standards for school districts but starves them of resources to meet those standards, the lawsuit said.

The case was filed in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court against the governor, state Department of Education and other state officials.

Pennsylvania school districts, like those in most states, are heavily funded by local property taxes. The state contributes on average 34 percent of the districts' revenue.

The state's contribution to local education budgets is the third-lowest share in the country, the lawsuit says.

Some districts are “so poor that, despite their high tax rates, they simply cannot raise enough money to improve education without more assistance from the state," it said.

“Our children are paying the price and being improperly labeled as failures because the state is not fulfilling its responsibility,” Joseph Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District in suburban Philadelphia, which joined the suit, said in a statement.

A study commissioned by the State Board of Education in 2006 found that 95 percent of school districts required additional funding. It spurred legislators to increase funding for needy school districts by $800 million in 2008, but those measures were reversed in 2011 when federal stimulus funds expired, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit comes less than a week after Democrat Tom Wolf ousted Republican Governor Tom Corbett in a campaign fight that focused greatly on education cuts made by the incumbent's administration.

Wolf has pledged to make education funding a priority.

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Steve Miskin, a spokesman for Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, said school districts spend $26 billion statewide, and that the bulk of revenue is directed toward the least wealthy districts.

“How much are they saying is enough?” Miskin said. “That's $26 billion generally coming out of people's pockets.”

A panel of state legislators has taken up the quest for a new funding formula, and its report is due in June 2015.

Among those filing the lawsuit on Monday were school districts in Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre and Lancaster; parents from the financially embattled Philadelphia School District; and a statewide association of rural school districts.

(Reporting by Daniel Kelley; Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Eric Beech)