A potentially game-changing school funding lawsuit in Pennsylvania is tentatively scheduled to go to trial Sept. 9, a Commonwealth Court judge ordered Thursday.
The decision comes seven years after the petitioners, which include the School District of Lancaster, filed the initial lawsuit stating Pennsylvania’s education funding system dangerously shortchanges public school students, especially those from low-income communities, in violation of the state constitution.
Representing the petitioners are the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center.
“I am excited that we will finally have our day in court to prove that our students are entitled by law to an adequate education that provides them with the same opportunities as their more privileged peers,” Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said during a virtual press conference about the lawsuit Friday.
Pennsylvania currently ranks 44th in the nation in the share of school funding that comes from the state, according to U.S. Census data. Most impacted by that are the state’s poorest school districts, which spend an average of $4,800 less per student than wealthy school districts.
That’s despite, as Rau pointed out Friday, poor school districts oftentimes having the highest property tax rates. They also have higher expenditures in areas such as English as a second language services, often forcing schools to go without other amenities in order to balance their budgets.
For instance, Lancaster has only five librarians for nearly 11,000 students, Rau said. Most of the district’s secondary students who live within two miles of their school must walk because school bus service is not provided to them, she added.
“It is not a just system when the poorest of students make the greatest sacrifices in accessing their education,” Rau said.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed these inequities further, Rau said. In March 2020, less than a third of Lancaster’s students had access to a device that would allow them to attend class virtually. Elementary students did not get devices until five months later.
Other petitioners in the case include William Penn, Greater Johnstown, Panther Valley, Shenandoah Valley and Wilkes-Barre Area school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the Pennsylvania NAACP and five public school parents.
The defendants are Gov. Tom Wolf; legislative leaders including Pennsylvania House Speaker Bryan Cutler of Peach Bottom; former state secretary of education and current Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology President Pedro Rivera; the Pennsylvania State Board of Education; and state Department of Education.