It’s been tried before without success, but proponents believe things have changed enough to tilt the judicial balance.
A lawsuit intended to force the state to pony up more money for public education is gathering steam, and Wilkes-Barre Area was the first local district to hop on board.
The lawsuit, expected to be filed in Commonwealth Court sometime after the state passes its annual budget at the end of this month, is being spearheaded jointly by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center.
One of the lead attorneys for the latter, Michael Churchill, is a veteran of these court wars. He helped press one of two lawsuits that took similar positions at the end of the last millennium.
Churchill said the argument remains essentially the same: The legislature is failing to meet its obligations toward education under the state Constitution. Specifically, the Constitution says “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Two prior cases contested in 1999 — separately by the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and by a group of advocates, parents and the city of Philadelphia — were dismissed “on the grounds they were not judicially manageable,” Churchill said.
The problem, according to the ruling, was that there were no clear state requirements for schools to meet. Which, in turn, meant there was no way for the courts to rule on whether the state was spending enough money to meet them, thus providing a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”
But the dismissal of those cases came on the eve of dramatic changes in public school mandates. Since then, Churchill notes, the state has done three things that justify revisiting the issue in courts:
• Set clear academic standards and goals for schools and districts under mandates from the federal law known as No Child Left Behind, signed into law January 2002. The law required states to set up and administer annual math and reading tests to most students, and required schools and districts to meet annual goals in test results, test participation, attendance and graduation. The mandates were recently expanded to include results from more tests.
• Determined, through a “costing out” study released in 2006, the amount of money each district needed per pupil to make sure it could teach all students everything the state required. The study led to the adoption of a new funding formula intended to deliver money to districts as needed, but the formula was been abandoned by Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration.
• Established explicit academic goals for individual students through the newly implemented Keystone Exams, which high school students must pass in order to graduate. Three subject-specific Keystone Exams have been implemented; plans to roll out more in the coming years have been postponed indefinitely.
All of which, Churchill said, means there is now “state supported information and state supported data that says what it costs to bring a student to a proficient level, and it is clear the state has failed to provide appropriate funds that, by their own report, the state says are necessary to meet state standards.”
The argument that school districts are cash-starved in the wake of recent cuts in state and federal money isn’t universally accepted, of course. The conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation periodically issues media releases pointing out that more money is spent on education now than in the past, that most school district spending has gone up, and that many school districts have increased their reserves even while claiming they need funding.
But local district officials and advocates counter that it’s not a question of the amount being spent, it’s a question of the state’s share of that money, which has dropped steadily for many years, hovering around 34 percent this year.
A law firm has agreed to support the costs of experts, Churchill said, and other help has been lined up that allows the two centers spearheading the suit to invite school districts to join the fight at no cost.
Churchill concedes the case does not hinge on how many districts participate. Along with Wilkes-Barre Area’s decision at Monday’s meeting to sign on, District Solicitor Ray Wendolowski said at least three other districts are on board. Churchill said he did not know how many had joined.
But the advantage of seeking more districts to join the suit comes in presenting the courts with solidarity in the cause, Churchill said.
“The real question is whether districts think it is in their interest to tell the Legislature that things are so bad they need to seek this kind of recourse.”