According to The Sentinel, the near-bankrupt Chester Upland school district has filed suit in federal court against the state Department of Education, state Education Secretary Ron Tomalis, and Governor Tom Corbett, claiming the state has “failed to maintain a thorough and efficient school system” by not properly funding the Delaware County school district and mismanaging it while the district was under state control between 1994 and 2010. The school district’s suit is based in part on Section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, which states: “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, neither the state legislative, nor executive branches has ever developed a funding formula to meet the obligation to educate students. Likewise, the federal and state judiciary have been reluctant to establish a definition whenever a lawsuit has arisen over Pennsylvania’s vague constitutional language.
Chester Upland’s suit contends that the failure to provide adequate funding has been exacerbated by a $23 million loss from Corbett’s 2011-12 education spending cuts and the 1997 charter school law that overfunds charters for special education at the expense of traditional schools. The state is denying the claims and says the court has no right to interpret the state constitution’s meaning of “thorough and efficient.” The state says Chester Upland’s lawsuit is “nothing more than a state law demand for money.”
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,” Freund said.
There is no denying the lawsuit has galvanized legislators. Legislation such as Senate Bill 1450 is being floated to identify financially distressed school districts such as Chester Upland, Reading, Philadelphia, Harrisburg, York, Erie — and perhaps soon, Allentown — and devise legislative funding fixes before a federal or state judge does. “The constitution of Pennsylvania charges the state with the delivery of education. If there is a funding problem, it is ultimately back on us,” said state Senate Education Committee Chairman Jeffrey Piccola.
The lawsuit claims the state has required the district to spend $9,858 per student and $14,670 per special education student while the state charter school law calls for the district to give charter schools the same amount for regular education students and $24,500 for special education students. In all, charter schools receive 44 percent of the district’s $96 million in revenues. Other states, including New Jersey, have used state courts to clear up “thorough and efficient” constitutional language to establish education funding levels.
Bruce Crawley, spokesman for Chester Community Charter School, said a judge needs to fix the funding formula for districts and charter schools. When the charter school law was adopted in 1997, he said, legislators assumed charters would be small operations of a few hundred students. Chester Community Charter School educates 3,100 students and has filed its own lawsuit in the state.
Source: The Sentinel, 5/7/12, By John L. Micek and Steve Esack (the Morning Call)
[Editor's Note: In January 2012, Legal Clips summarized the Washington Supreme Court decision in McCleary v. State, which held that the state had failed to meet its constitutional duty under article IX, section 1 of the state constitution to adequately fund the “education” of K-12 students. The evidence showed “the State’s now-abandoned basic education funding formulas did not correlate to the real cost of amply providing students with the constitutionally required ‘education.’” The court, therefore, concluded that the state had “consistently failed to provide adequate funding for the program of basic education, including funding for essential operational costs such as utilities and transportation, which resulted in local school districts turning increasingly to excess levies to make up the shortfall.
In December 2011, Legal Clips summarized an article in Education Week, which reported that a Colorado district court (trial level) judge had ruled that the state’s system for funding schools is “irrational” and “divorced from the reality” of the state’s constitution, the requirements of which it fails to meet. In a strongly worded opinion, the judge concluded that Colorado’s school funding model had been “completely unresponsive” to mounting and costly academic mandates placed on schools.
John Freund is a member of COSA.]