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Districts, parents sue Pa. over education funding

School districts, parents, an organization representing small and rural school systems and the state NAACP on Monday filed a lawsuit against Gov. Tom Corbett, state education officials and legislative leaders, saying that Pennsylvania fails to uphold its constitutional obligation to educate children adequately.

Plaintiffs of the suit, filed in Commonwealth Court, include two Philadelphia School District parents and the William Penn School District in Delaware County.

State officials have "adopted an irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities," say the plaintiffs, who are represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center-PA.

Urban, suburban, and rural districts are all included in the long-anticipated suit. Besides William Penn, the plaintiffs include the Panther Valley School District in Carbon County, the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District in Cambria County, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District in Luzerne County, and the Shenandoah Valley School District in Schuylkill County. The NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools filed on behalf of their members.

The suit alleges that while leaders impose academic standards on children, they do not give them the resources to meet those standards.

"My child is in classes with too many other students and she has no access to tutoring services or support from paraprofessionals, but our elected officials still expect and require her to pass standardized tests," Jamela Miller, parent of an 11-year-old child in the William Penn School District, said in a prepared statement. "How are kids supposed to pass the tests required to graduate high school, find a job and contribute to our economy if their schools are starving for resources?"

Statewide, fewer than half of Pennsylvania students passed Keystone graduation exams, and most school districts had at least one school that could not meet state standards for the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, the PSSA exams.

"State officials know exactly what needs to be done, but they refuse to do it," said Jennifer R. Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia. "We are asking the Court to step in and solve this problem for the future of our children and our Commonwealth."

Pennsylvania is a rarity nationwide - one of just a handful of states that lacks a codified funding formula. One was proposed during the Rendell administration, but abandoned in 2011 under Corbett. A lack of formula leads to a heavy reliance on property taxes and wide gaps in per-pupil spending: depending on where they live, spending per public school student in Pennsylvania ranges from $9,800 to $28,400.

And still, many poor district have higher tax rates than wealthy ones. "It is not tax effort that explains the difference in funding," the suit states. "Rather, these underfunded districts are in areas so poor that, despite their high tax rates, they simply cannot raise enough money to improve education without more assistance from the state."

In recent years, William Penn has had to lay off teachers, support staff, counselors, social workers, reading specialists and coaches, said Joseph Bruni, the district's superintendent.

"Classrooms are overcrowded and we had to cut the number of classes we offer children each day," Bruni said. "Even though our dedicated teachers and staff are working harder than ever, our children are paying the price and being improperly labeled as failures because the state is not fulfilling its responsibility."

Philadelphia schools did not join the suit. The district has been run by the state for more than a decade. But, the suit notes, its superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., publicly said "that school staffing levels in 2013-14 were insufficient to provide students an adequate education."

The funding disparity hits districts that educate the neediest students particularly hard, the suit notes.

Pennsylvania funds a smaller share of public education costs than nearly every other state in the U.S., said Maura McInerney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center.

"Students and teachers are making concerted efforts to ensure that students acquire needed skills 
in reading, math and science — but without basic services, too many students now face 
insurmountable and illegal disadvantages," McInerney said.

A committee has begun exploring the idea of an education funding formula for Pennsylvania, but the group's work is just beginning. Gov-elect Tom Wolf has said that he intends to restore education cuts and enact a funding formula.

A similar lawsuit was filed 15 years ago. Ultimately, the court said it could not order changes because it did not have a way to determine whether students were meeting academic standards. That has changed with the adoption of statewide exams, the plaintiffs argue.

A press conference is planned for 11 a.m. to discuss the suit.

This is a developing story. Please check back for more details.