School Funding

In landmark school funding case, Pennsylvania lawmakers try to block evidence of racial disparities



Ahead of trial in landmark fair funding case, Republican legislative leaders want to block evidence that black and Hispanic Pennsylvania students fare worse than their white peers on traditional measures of success school.

At a hearing on Wednesday, lawyers for Speaker of the House Bryan Cutler and Speaker of the Senate Jake Corman told Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubilirer the evidence was irrelevant because the complainants in the case did not allege intentional racial discrimination.

Patrick Northen, who represents Cutler, accused the other side of highlighting racial disparities in school performance in order to “appeal to the sympathies of the court and the tribunal of public opinion.”

Six school districts, joined by several parents and civil rights groups, filed a lawsuit nearly seven years ago against the state government alleging that Pennsylvania’s method of funding schools violates the constitutional mandate of the state to provide a “comprehensive and effective” education system for all students and deprive them of their rights under the “equal protection” clause.

Those in districts with high poverty rates and low real estate wealth have been cheated, complainants say, because Pennsylvania’s system places much of the burden on local taxes. This led to some of the largest variances in spending per student between the rich and poor neighborhoods of any state in the country.

Despite adopt a fair funding formula in 2016 who would distribute state education aid based on factors such as poverty rates, student needs, local property wealth and median incomes, the legislator did not apply the formula to most of the funds it distributes.

Black and Latino students make up about a quarter of the state’s K-12 population, but half of black students and 40 percent of Latino students attend school in the poorest fifth of the districts in the ‘State, according to the complainants. They say the relative lack of resources translates into larger classrooms, fewer qualified teachers, more shabby buildings, and fewer opportunities for extracurricular activities, including sports, as well as other drawbacks that contribute to poorer academic performance for students of color.

“While students of all races experience underfunding, the quintile of districts with the most concentrated number of African American and Hispanic students is $ 1.4 billion more underfunded than the shortfall in the districts with the fewest students of color, ”state the complainants in their brief. And 80% of students of color attend school in districts that would receive more funding if the state distributed all of its income according to the formula it adopted five years ago.

But Northen said the case focused on students from districts with low income and property value and it was not about race. “I don’t think you can say, because some racial or ethnic groups disproportionately reside in these districts, that kind of provides proof of the complaint they have filed,” he said.

Jubilirer asked Northen about this, wondering why the plaintiffs cannot focus their case “on an identifiable class of students who reside in low income, low property value school districts as an argument in their response?” Later, she added: “In a vacuum, at this point, for me to try to limit how the evidence can or cannot be presented or what could or could not be said about this evidence at trial is. a challenge.”

Lawyers for Cutler and Corman also said much of the evidence on the record dates back to the court’s initial filing in 2014 and that they need additional information and data on more recent developments, including the impact of COVID-19 on the ability of districts to serve their students.

Representing the plaintiffs, Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center said the request was a delaying tactic. She noted that since the initial filing, there have been countless depositions and interrogations that provide up-to-date information on current conditions and circumstances in low-income school districts.

“It is clear that the requests of the respondents [for updated information] will never end, ”she said. Meanwhile, “the education of hundreds of thousands of students is at stake.”

Kenneth Huston, president of the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, one of the plaintiffs, said he was “shocked” by the motion to exclude any evidence of the system’s impact on children of color.

“We hope that the motion will be defeated and that all matters relating to the equitable funding of all schools in Pennsylvania will move forward,” Huston said in a statement. “Our fight for justice on this issue is deeply rooted in our state’s constitution and civil rights laws, and we do not take it lightly. “

There has been continued legal activity and delays in the case, including earlier attempts by lawmakers have the case dismissed. This is the latest in a series of fair fundraising cases filed in Pennsylvania over the past 30 years and the only one to go this far.

In April, Jubilirer scheduled the trial will start on September 9.

On Wednesday, she did not say when she would vote on the final motions.



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