Wilkes-Barre Area School District Superintendent Brian Costello painted a grim picture: Lack of adequate state support has resulted in loss of school librarians, inability to replace old textbooks, nearly 10 percent of teachers furloughed since 2011, and more, he wrote in an affidavit backing a court brief filed Friday.
But resident Tracey Hughes, a periodic critic of the district who also filed an affidavit, stole the legal show. In a media release announcing the latest action in a suit begun four years ago, Hughes was highlighted for her personal touch to the broad problems Costello outlined. She said her son, a student at Meyers, “is not able to bring home books to study or do homework.”
Hughes and Costello were among nine people who submitted affidavits in the latest filing in “William Penn School District et. al. v. Pa. Department of Education et al.” The Wilkes-Barre Area School Board joined five other districts in the suit, while Hughes joined as an individual.
The suit contends the state Legislature is violating two aspects of the state constitution: the “Education Clause” and the “Equal Protection Provision.”
The former, they argue, requires the state to “provide a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” The latter requires equitable funding across districts. Neither is happening, the suit contends.
In April 2015, Commonwealth Court dismissed the lawsuit, citing a 1999 ruling that determined education funding is a matter for the legislative and executive branches, in part because there was no way for a court to determine what a “thorough and efficient system” of education is.
Those behind the lawsuit have argued from the start that since 1999 the state has mandated a wide range of standardized tests and used test results to gauge school success, giving the courts a standard to use in determining a “thorough and efficient system.” They also argued the Legislature had determined how much money districts need to meet those standards through a “costing out study” required by law in 2005.
On appeal, the state Supreme Court ordered the Commonwealth Court to take up the case. Defendants, notably House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati — both Republicans — then filed multiple objections, most of them rejected. One stuck: They argued the state’s adoption of a new education funding formula through Act 35 of 2016 makes the case “moot” by addressing the equitable funding allegation.
That formula is intended to channel state money to the neediest districts, based on the number of students, their poverty levels, the district’s tax base and other factors. Friday’s filing was the first volley in the moot debate.
The brief notes Act 35 explicitly requires the state to give each district the same amount it got before the law was passed, and to apply the formula only to any additional money in the budget. The result: less than 2 percent of the state’s basic education money goes through the formula.
Contrary to Scarnati’s claim, it argues, “Act 35 did not ‘replace’ or ‘supplant’ the school funding scheme. It enshrined the existing scheme’s inadequacy and inequity in perpetuity.”
Costello and Hughes support that.
Costello notes Wilkes-Barre Area administrators “make choices based on what we can afford during a particular year, rather than on what our students need.” He points out the district has high rates of poverty and student disabilities, driving up costs without an equal increase in state funding. “Last year we spent approximately $18 million on special education services, but the state provided us with only $4.9 million.”
He also cites state funding cuts in 2011-12 as the reason the district cut remedial programs, elementary summer school, and dual enrollment — letting high school students take college classes. He cites an estimate that, if the new funding formula were applied to all basic education money, Wilkes-Barre Area would get an additional $29.3 million from the state.
‘Child continues to suffer’
Hughes, meanwhile, speaks repeatedly of her son’s experience in the district. Identifying him as P.M.H., she notes “Wilkes Barre Area is unable to provide P.M.H. any tutoring … P.M.H.’s school has limited electives … P.M.H. does not have access to a computer at school outside of the computer science elective.”
“Since the filing of this lawsuit, my child continues to suffer as a direct result of the under-funding of his school district,” Hughes wrote.
Friday’s brief provides findings from a new analysis by Keystone Research Center economist Mark Price, saying if applied to all education spending, the formula would redistribute $1.2 billion — or almost 20 percent of the budget among districts.
“Act 35 also did nothing to ensure that school districts receive funding sufficient to meet their actual needs,” the brief argues. One example: the state-controlled increases in district payments to the teacher pension fund alone have increased $155 million more than all state education funding since 2013.
The filing quotes from Costello’s affidavit: “Regardless of the method of distribution, the reality has only grown worse … over the last two years, not better.”
The filing cites low results on state standardized tests in several districts as proof that lack of funding prevents districts from improving student success. In Wilkes-Barre Area, 61 percent of students scored “below proficient in algebra I, 44 percent in literature, and 77 percent in biology.
“These poor student outcomes, as well as the overwhelming evidence of ongoing resource, staff, and curriculum deficiencies, lay bare the hollowness of Respondents’ mootness argument,” the filing argues.
The defendants have until Aug. 5 to file a reply brief.
Reach Mark Guydish at 570-991-6112 or on Twitter @TLMarkGuydish