The funding woes of the School District of Philadelphia have been well known and an ongoing problem for decades. What could possibly change that?
School advocates and students are pinning their hopes on a lawsuit that will be argued before the state’s highest court Tuesday which attack’s the state’s formula for funding public education around Pennsylvania and in Philly.
“What’s really unfair about this funding formula when you dig into it is that funding, in my opinion, should be per student, up or down depending on the conditions of the school system, and that’s not the case in Harrisburg,” City Councilman Allan Domb said at a sing-in and rally in Dilworth Park Monday afternoon held by supporters of the lawsuit.
Per-pupil state subsidies to regional school districts vary widely from district to district, sometimes by thousands of dollars. Wealthier areas can rely on funds from property taxes to make up the gap, while districts with more students learning to speak English and students living in poverty are left struggling to bridge the gap.
“We’re not the only district that suffering throughout the commonwealth,” City Councilman Mark Squilla said during the rally. “We need to hold hands and join all the school districts throughout the commonwealth to send the exact same message to the courts: we need fair funding.”
The suit was filed in 2014 by local parents, the William Penn School District outside Philly, representing Yeadon and Darby, the NAACP and statewide education associations. The lawsuit’s central claim hinges on a phrase in the state constitution that the government must provide a “fair and efficient system of education.”
“There is no one that can say that is the case now,” said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, at the rally. “The legislature, the governor, they can’t even say it works, but they want this lawsuit to go away.”
Gov. Tom Wolf powered into office on a pro-public school campaign and in June signed into law a new education funding formula. However, some education advocates say the changes won’t do enough to fix systemic problems in school districts around the state.
The lawsuit lost twice in the lower courts before winding its way to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, but it could be perfect timing.
Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court bench has been shaken up considerably in the wake of the Porngate-related resignations of two Republican justices. The election last year of three Democratic judges decisively flipped the court’s political stance to the Democratic Party (5-2), which traditionally supports increased government spending on schools.
But there are skeptics. Among them is the Commonwealth Foundation, a right-wing think tank that supports charter schools and is deeply critical of Philadelphia’s School District and its teachers’ union. They said court-ordered spending increases in other states have not always led to improved student outcomes.
“Education funding is the job of the legislature, not the courts,” said James Paul, a senior policy analyst with the Commonwealth Foundation. “Per-student spending is already at an all-time high in Pennsylvania, more than $3,000 above the national average. Even lower-income districts in Pennsylvania spend more than lower-income districts nationally.
"The legislature and Gov. Wolf did well to enact a student-based funding formula earlier this year. We should make use of this formula rather than asking the courts to interfere in the classroom.”