Pennsylvania Schools Eye Lawsuit Over Funding Formula

The ambiguity surrounding a section of the Pennsylvania Constitution referring to the Assembly’s requirement to provide public education is to go on trial finally in a bitter dispute over education funding.

Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution: “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.”

However, judiciary and officials have been long reluctant to provide a precise definition of what exactly these passage means or hash out a full funding formula.

Students, parents and the ailing school district of Chester Upland are now fighting the state Department of Education, Governor and Education Secretary in court.

The lawsuit alleges that the state has failed in its constitutional duty to provide and maintain ‘a thorough and efficient school system’ by improperly funding the Delaware County school district and mismanaging it while it was under state control. The lawsuit further alleges that Governor Corbett’s spending cuts this year resulted in a $23 million loss and that the 1997 charter school law that overfunds charters for special education at the expense of traditional schools is a primary case of this failure.

In response the state has denied that the court even has the right to interpret the meaning of the vague State Constitution passage.

Bethlehem attorney John Freund, a solicitor for many Lehigh Valley area school districts, said Chester Upland has a unique set of circumstances, so some of the claims have no bearing on the rest of the state.

But, he said, the fundamental allegations — lack of state funding and an unfair funding formula that could cause schools to close — could have broad implications across the state if Chester Upland wins.

“To the extent this lawsuit sheds any light on the question of whether state funding must be sufficient to allow schools to provide special education funding could have significant ripple effects across the commonwealth.”

Bruce Cawley, a spokesman for Chester Community Charter School, agreed that the funding formula for districts and charter schools needed to be fixed, noting that in 1997 no one anticipated the sudden proliferation of charters and the original law was based on the assumption that charters would be small operations of only a few hundred students. By comparison Cawley’s school currently educates 3,100 students.

Susan DeJarnatt, a law professor at Temple, warns that if Chester Upland is forced to close, then the precedent set by the 1973 San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez case may not apply. If the students at Chester Upland are no longer receiving any form of classroom education then the federal and state barrier that prevented the court then from imposing a standardized funding formula may not apply.