To be blunt, it’s about time.
There is a scene in the musical 1776, when the Continental Congress is voting on whether or not to debate independence. Road Island representative Stephen Hopkins, played with crusty glee in the movie by Roy Poole, comes back from “the privy” to find the vote deadlocked, with his choice the tie breaker. His response:
“Well, in all my years I ain’t never heard, seen nor smelled an issue that was so dangerous it couldn’t be talked about. Hell yeah! I’m for debating anything. Rhode Island says yea!”
That likely was the sentiment for many advocates who have spent years, even decades, trying to change school funding in Pennsylvania when the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a lawsuit about that issue should be heard. Wilkes-Barre Area is one of six school districts to join the suit, known on the docket as “William Penn School District, et. al, v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et. al.
This is an old issue. The argument has long been that the quality of a public education depends too heavily on where you live, for two reasons: School funding relies too heavily on local property taxes, and the state has been too cheap to cover the differences and level the playing field. The lawsuit simply says the state is not meeting a obligation in the state Constitution to to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Lawsuits such as this one — filed in 2014 — are not uncommon. They have been filed in other states, often with success. In fact, two similar suits were filed in 1999 and rejected by the courts as a non-judicial matter. School funding was a legislative issue. The logic: There were no clear state requirements schools had to meet, so there was no way for courts to determine if the state was providing enough money.
But things change, and in education they changed tremendously. Pennsylvania and every other state implemented extensive standardized testings and set specific results schools were supposed to maintain. The Keystone State also conducted a “costing out study” that put a specific dollar figure on what each district would need to meet the new goals. Heck, Harrisburg even passed a new formula for distributing state money more equitably, but rather stupidly deemed it best to apply the new formula to “new money” — a small fraction of the total state education budget, leaving existing inequities very much in place.
The new lawsuit noted all those changes, but a Commonwealth Court dismissed the case anyway, for the same reasons the 1999 cases were derailed. The plaintiffs appealed, and the state Supreme Court wisely overturned that ruling, ordering the lower court to hear arguments.
The legislative branch has shown a remarkable reluctance to tackle the issue of inequitable school funding head on. Is it time to have this debate in court and let the judicial branch have a say?