The William Penn lawsuit took a step forward in August, 2018, when Commonwealth Court rejected motions filed on behalf of state Senate President Pro-Tempore Joseph Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai who claimed the 2014 lawsuit was moot after the legislature passed a fair funding formula in 2016.
In a four-page opinion, Judge Robert Simpson said it was clear that a “dispute about the significance and adequacy of the funding changes … persists.”
The fair funding formula takes into account local factors like special education population and local property tax effort, but the payoff to the districts that would benefit from the formula was curtailed by the provision that only new education funding be distributed that way.
Using this method, it could take as long as 20 years for some districts to reach parity. Pottstown Schools, for example, are currently underfunded by more than $13 million every year.
Aggravating the situation was a 2017 study by the advocacy group POWER which found that, intentional or not, Pennsylvania's education funding has a bias against communities with high minority populations, even when the poverty levels are the same.
“I doubt very much this situation exists by design,” said researcher David Mosenkis. “I don’t think people got together in a back room and said ‘let’s discriminate against students of color.’ … But now that we have shone a light on its existence, now that we know there is a systemic bias that favors white populations, there is no excuse for not fixing it.”
This revelation further motivated Pottstown Schools Superintendent Stephen Rodriguez and members of the Pottstown School Board to step up their advocacy in Harrisburg.
“This absolutely angers me,” said Rodriguez. “It angers me for what opportunities it is robbing from our students and it angers me for the economic burden it is putting on this community.”
The drumbeat of protest continued through 2018, gaining some traction. In May, a flurry of bills was introduced in the General Assembly, all aimed at further empowering the fair funding formula and putting its provision to work more widely and more quickly.
In August, state representatives Tom Quigley and Tim Hennessey jointly introduced a bill that would allocate 75 percent of all new Basic Education Funding proportionately to the underfunded school districts and the remaining 25 percent of all new Basic Education Funding to all 500 school districts through the student-weighted Basic Education Formula.
If enacted, the bill, which also had the support of state Sen. Bob Mensch, R-24th Dist., would speed up the pace at which underfunded districts catch up to their wealthier neighbors.
The distribution of education funding through the fair funding formula remains a single-digit fraction of the whole -- just 8 percent in the current year's budget -- despite Gov. Tom Wolf's endorsement of a more equitable method.
>While Rodriguez and other school leaders pressure the legislature, petitioners in the William Penn lawsuit look to the courts to remedy the situation. Dan Ackelsberg of the Public Interest Law Center, which represents the petitioners, told Digital First Media in August that the suit has always been about challenging the system.
“One statute change does not change that failure, that system,” he said. “This has always been a challenge to the system and the legislature’s failure to adequately fund public schools. … We look forward to children across the commonwealth getting their days in court.”
As we begin 2019, we await the day in court that could force the legislature to properly fund our schools – all schools, not just those that are in wealthy areas with a strong local tax base.
Every child is entitled by the state constitution to an education. We look forward to the finish line that will make that a reality.