The state of Pennsylvania is being sued by the following petitioners:

WILLIAM PENN SCHOOL DISTRICT; PANTHER VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT; THE SCHOOL DISTRICT OF LANCASTER; GREATER JOHNSTOWN SCHOOL DISTRICT; WILKES-BARRE AREA SCHOOL DISTRICT; SHENANDOAH VALLEY SCHOOL DISTRICT; JAMELLA AND BRYANT MILLER, parents of K.M., minor; SHEILA ARMSTRONG, parent of S.A., minor; TYESHA STRICKLAND, parent of E.T., minor; ANGEL MARTINEZ, parent of A.M., minor; BARBARA NEMETH, parent of C.M., minor; TRACEY HUGHES, parent of P.M.H., minor; PENNSYLVANIA ASSOCIATION OF RURAL AND SMALL SCHOOLS; and THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF COLORED PEOPLE—PENNSYLVANIA STATE CONFERENCE.

The petitioners are represented by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia and the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.

Here is the summary of their challenge to the state:

PETITION FOR REVIEW IN THE NATURE OF AN ACTION FOR DECLARATORY AND INJUNCTIVE RELIEF

Petitioners, by and through their counsel, for their Petition for Review in the Nature of an Action for Declaratory and Injunctive Relief against Respondents, state and allege as follows:

INTRODUCTORY STATEMENT

The good Education of Youth has been esteemed by Wise men in all Ages, as the surest foundation of the happiness both of private Families and of Common-wealths. Almost all Governments have therefore made it a principal Object of their Attention, to establish and endow with proper Revenues, such Seminaries of Learning, as might supply the succeeding Age with Men qualified to serve the publick with Honour to themselves, and to their Country.1

1. From the earliest days of the Commonwealth, Pennsylvania has recognized a societal interest in public education—a charge that Respondents here are sworn to carry out. Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, Respondents have an obligation to support a thorough and efficient public school system that provides all children an equal opportunity to receive an adequate education. Through legislation and regulation, Respondents have established state academic standards that define precisely what an adequate education entails. But rather than equip children to meet those standards and participate meaningfully in the economic, civic, and social life of their communities, Respondents have adopted an irrational and inequitable school financing arrangement that drastically underfunds school districts across the Commonwealth and discriminates against children on the basis of the taxable property and household incomes in their districts.
In adopting this arrangement, Respondents have violated Article III, Section 14, of the Pennsylvania Constitution (the “Education Clause”), which requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” They have also violated Article III, Section 32 (the “Equal Protection Clause”), which requires Respondents to finance the Commonwealth’s public education system in a manner that does not irrationally discriminate against a class of children.

2. The General Assembly’s delegation of much of these duties to local school districts cannot elide its ultimate responsibility under the Education Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. Through this lawsuit, Petitioners seek to hold the General Assembly responsible for and accountable to its constitutional mandate.

3. Respondents are well aware that the current school financing arrangement does not satisfy that mandate. In 2006, recognizing its constitutional duty to ensure adequate school funding, the General Assembly passed Act 114, which directed the State Board of Education to conduct a comprehensive statewide “costing-out” study to determine the “basic cost per pupil to provide an education that will permit a student to meet the State’s academic standards and assessments.” Upon the study’s completion in 2007, Respondents learned that 95% of the Commonwealth’s school districts required additional funding, a shortfall that totaled $4.4 billion.
In response, the General Assembly approved a bill in 2008 that established funding targets for each school district and a formula for distributing education funds in a manner that would help ensure that all students could meet state academic standards. Even with a financial crisis sweeping the nation, Respondents were able to rely on that funding formula to begin to more equitably distribute state funds and federal stimulus money, which collectively increased funding for school districts by more than $800 million over three years. Beginning in 2011, however, Respondents abandoned the funding formula, slashed funding to districts by more than $860 million, and passed legislation to severely restrict local communities from increasing local funding. Meanwhile, the cost of meeting state academic standards continued to rise, opening a perilous and widening gap between the actual resources provided to school districts and the resources necessary to provide children in Pennsylvania an adequate education.

4. These funding cuts have had a devastating effect on students, school districts (especially less affluent school districts), teachers, and the future of the Commonwealth. The latest figures from the 2012–13 school year indicate that more than 300,000 of the approximately 875,000 students tested, including the children of the individual Petitioners in this action, are receiving an inadequate education—by Respondents’ own definition—and are unable to meet state academic standards. Specifically, these students are unable to achieve proficiency on the Pennsylvania System of Standardized Assessment (“PSSA”) exams, which the General Assembly modified in 1999 to track state academic standards and measure student performance in reading, writing, math, and science.

5. Because of insufficient funding, Petitioner school districts are unable to provide students with the basic elements of an adequate education, such as appropriate class sizes, sufficient experienced and effective teachers, up-to-date books and technology, adequate course offerings, sufficient administrative staff, academic remediation, counseling and behavioral health services, and suitable facilities necessary to prepare students to meet state proficiency standards. In fact, the superintendent of the state’s largest school district has stated publicly that school staffing levels in 2013-14 were insufficient to provide students an adequate education.

6. Nor do Petitioner school districts have adequate resources to prepare students to pass the Keystone Exams, which measure student performance in math, science, and English. Achieving proficiency or higher on the Keystone Exams (or an equivalent project-based assessment) is a graduation requirement for all Pennsylvania students in the class of 2017 and beyond. Yet over 50% of students in the Commonwealth are currently unable to pass the Keystone Exams. Many of those students will leave high school without a diploma, hindering their ability to enter the workforce or “serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” The existing system of public education is therefore neither thorough nor efficient, as measured by the Commonwealth’s own academic standards and costing-out study.

7. What is worse, the very low levels of state funding and unusually high dependence on local taxes under the current financing arrangement have created gross funding disparities among school districts—an asymmetry that disproportionately harms children residing in districts with low property values and incomes. In fiscal year 2011, local sources provided 60% of the money that funded public education, while state appropriations accounted for only 34%. That year, only three states contributed a smaller percentage of the cost of public education than Pennsylvania.

8. As a consequence, total education expenditures per student now range from as little as $9,800 per student in school districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in districts with high property values and incomes, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s 2012–13 data.2 This unconscionable and irrational funding disparity violates the Equal Protection Clause because it turns the caliber of public education into an accident of geography: Children in property- and income-poor districts are denied the opportunity to receive even an adequate education, while their peers in property- and income-rich districts enjoy a high-quality education.

This funding disparity is not justified by any difference in student needs. To the contrary, those students with the highest needs (e.g., English-language learners, students living in poverty) receive the fewest resources to prepare them to succeed. Nor is it justified by a desire to maintain local control over education. Any such “control” is illusory under the current financing arrangement because districts with low property values do not actually control the amount of resources at their disposal or the standards to which their students are held. In fact, many low-wealth districts have higher tax rates than property-rich school districts. In other words, it is not tax effort that explains the difference in funding. Rather, these underfunded districts are in areas so poor that, despite their high tax rates, they simply cannot raise enough money to improve education without more assistance from the state.

10. Petitioner Panther Valley School District (“Panther Valley”), a property-poor district, is a prime example of the funding disparity. In 2012– 13, Panther Valley’s equalized millage rate of 27.8—the 27th highest of the Commonwealth’s 501 school districts—raised revenue of approximately $5,646 locally per student. Property-rich Lower Merion School District (“Lower Merion”), on the other hand, raised revenue of approximately $23,709 locally per student—four times more than Panther Valley—with an equalized millage rate of just 14.7, almost half of Panther Valley’s.

11. Although the state has made some effort to close that gap, contributing twice as much per student to Panther Valley as it did to Lower Merion, that still left Panther Valley with less than half the combined state and local funding of Lower Merion: $12,022 per student versus $26,700. Respondents cannot reasonably claim that $12,022 is adequate to educate a Panther Valley student—not when the State Board of Education’s own costing-out study showed that Panther valley needed $13,427 per student based on 2005–06 costs. Over the past nine years, of course, those costs have only grown.

12. Given Respondents’ failure to address the funding crisis—and the ongoing harm their failure has inflicted on children throughout the Commonwealth—Petitioners ask this Court to declare the existing school financing arrangement unconstitutional and find that it violates both the Education Clause and the Equal Protection Clause. An objective framework for such an inquiry already exists. The state academic standards and student performance measures developed by Respondents beginning in 1999, as well as the costing-out study they commissioned, provide judicially manageable standards by which the Court can assess whether the General Assembly has maintained and supported “a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” as required by the Pennsylvania Constitution.

13. Petitioners also seek an injunction compelling Respondents, after being given sufficient time to design, enact, and implement a school financing arrangement consistent with the Constitution, to halt any funding arrangement that (i) does not provide necessary, sufficient, and appropriate funding that ensures all students have an opportunity to obtain an adequate education and meet state academic standards, and (ii) irrationally discriminates against children who live in school districts with low property values and incomes.

1 Benjamin Franklin, Proposal Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749), available at http://www.archives.upenn.edu/primdocs/1749proposals.html.

2 Unless otherwise noted, throughout this Complaint, “per student” is based upon Average Daily Membership (“ADM”) as reported by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. ADM refers to “all resident pupils of the school district for whom the school district is financially responsible.” It includes students in charter schools. See http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/financial_data_elements/7672.