Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

Pennsylvania schools sue state in bid to reform funding

Six districts, along with NAACP, say state fails poor areas by relying too heavily on property taxes for school funding

SHENANDOAH, Pa. — The halls of Shenandoah’s schools are clean and orderly, the students quiet and focused. But the district has one school counselor, one guidance counselor, one art teacher and one gym teacher for more than 1,000 students. It no longer has a librarian. Funding for buses was cut in 2011, and students who live in the borough of Shenandoah have to be driven to school or walk, some over a mile.

The small and economically struggling town about two hours northwest of Philadelphia is one of six school districts, along with advocacy groups and the state’s NAACP, suing the state in an attempt to force it to rework how it funds school districts.

Advocates say that without a rejiggering of the formula, many school districts are bound to fail to meet the needs of their students.

The problem, they say, boils down to how the state funds schools. Pennsylvania is one of three states without a statewide funding formula for public education, according to the Education Law Center, a nonprofit group representing plaintiffs in the suit. While most states use property taxes in their funding formulas, Pennsylvania’s lack of a formula means that local taxes account for a larger share of school funding. Nationally, property taxes make up an average of 44 percent of school budgets, but in Pennsylvania the taxes make up 53 percent on average and much more in some districts.

Critics say that leaves poorer districts in urban areas like Philadelphia as well as schools in rural areas and in smaller school districts with smaller tax bases, scrambling to raise money from property taxes.

A residential street in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

In Shenandoah, the district receives about $8,000 per student. A 2005 study commissioned by the state found the district would need more than $12,000 per student to ensure each student met state standards. After the study, the state committed to attempting to fund the gap in each district starting in 2008 — but in 2011, when budget-conscious Republican Gov. Corbett came into office, he cut the funding used to fill the gap.

Shenandoah was once at the heart of the state’s coal industry, but has over the decades lost about 80 percent of its population, and is now home to about 5,000 people. Its per capita income — $15,053 according to the U.S. Census — is about half that of the rest of the state. On the town’s Main Street, many of the storefronts are boarded up.

On top the budget cuts, Shenandoah’s population is changing. The town’s economy, along with the economies of many former coal and mill towns in Pennsylvania, has been on the decline for decades. An influx of immigrants has ballooned the number of students in classes for those learning English as a second language. Drugs are increasingly a problem in the community.

About 20 percent of the school’s population is special needs, about 10 percent speak English as a second language, and most come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Sixth grade English, language arts and social studies teacher teacher Michelle Klingerman.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

“They’re coming from broken homes, dysfunctional homes, poverty-stricken homes and bringing everything outside inside, and we’re expected to make them successful with 30 kids in a classroom,” said Michelle Klingerman, a sixth-grade English, language arts and social studies teacher. “When you’re dealing with budget cuts, how do you become everything that every one of these kids needs? We just need more teachers and more staff.”

On top of the budget cuts, the school has had to adapt to meet the new Common Core standards, which provide certain benchmarks for reading, writing and math, often measured through standardized testing. Critics of Common Core say the standards don’t take into account the vastly differing levels of academic ability among different populations, especially economically disadvantaged ones like the kids in Shenandoah.

“We’re an urban school in a rural setting,” said Anthony Demalis, the district’s business manager. “Our needs are different. Our population is different. But they’re funding us like it was 20 years ago.”

On Nov. 10, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), along with six school districts and the state’s NAACP, filed suit against the state, saying the vast majority of schools in Pennsylvania have been systematically underfunded, in violation of the state’s constitution. The lawsuit alleges that some school districts in the state receive less than $10,000 per student, while others receive nearly $30,000.

“Between our richest districts and our poorest districts there’s an enormous cavern,” said Joseph Bard, the director of the PARSS. “We need a method of state distribution that is fairer and more equitable … We are sufficiently frustrated that we are trying this route.”

Corbett’s office and the state Department of Education did not respond to multiple calls for comment for this article. DOE spokesman Tim Eller has pointed out that state spending on education is higher than ever, about $10 billion annually. But that doesn’t mean schools are seeing much more money, since a large chunk of that funding goes to rising pension costs. And it doesn’t account for the fact that more money than ever is coming from school districts and not the state.

The band room at Shenandoah Valley High School.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

The PARSS suit alleges that the state’s disparate funding goes against the state constitution’s mandate to “provide maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

A similar lawsuit filed against the state in the 1990s was shot down in state court. The court decided there were no standards to figure out whether students from any given district were measuring up to students from another district.

Plaintiffs in this suit hope that, thanks to the federal Common Core initiative and the new statewide Keystone exams, there will be enough of a statewide standard to argue for more equal funding.

While rural and small schools lead the lawsuit, experts say the lack of a funding formula in Pennsylvania disadvantages all schools in poorer districts.

“The legislature develops a budget based on priorities, and those priorities can fluctuate year over year,” said Rand Quinn, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. “Without a formula, there’s no consistency from year to year, and it’s idiosyncratic.”

Quinn and his colleague Matthew Steinberg studied Pennsylvania’s school funding system for a report commissioned by the Philadelphia City Council in 2013. They found that in poor districts across the state, schools were being underfunded by about $1,500 per pupil. In Philadelphia the adequacy gap was more than $5,000.

“The state used to fund a share of that shortfall,” said Steinberg. “In 2011 under Gov. Tom Corbett’s administration, that part of the funding [formula] was removed.”

Philadelphia spends about $11,500 per student a year. In comparison, New York City spends over $20,000.

Ninth grade English teacher Anne Taylor in her classroom at Shenandoah Valley High.
Andrew Hinderaker for Al Jazeera America

It’s unclear how long the lawsuit filed by PARSS could take to resolve.

Wythe Keever, a communications director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, which represents teachers in the state, said that the organization supported the intent of the lawsuit but hoped that incoming Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf could solve schools’ fiscal crisis sooner.

Even if the new administration restores some funding to schools, advocates say a resolution to this lawsuit is important. Without one, the state’s funding formula is open to the whims of future politicians. “It’s really not about who is or which party is in power,” said Cheryl Kleiman, an attorney at the Education Law Center. “We’re asking the court to uphold the constitution.”

Wolf’s election and the lawsuit may signal change on the horizon for Pennsylvania schools, but in the meantime, parents, students and administrators say it’s hard to feel hopeful.

Six years ago, Jamella Miller moved with her husband and three kids to a house in Lansdowne, about 10 minutes west of Philadelphia, in the William Penn School District. The district is only five minutes from their old house, which was in the Upper Moreland School District. Despite the few miles that separated the schools, Miller said there has been a world of difference.

“We’re five minutes away, but [Upper Moreland has] swimming, tennis, computer labs, textbooks at home and school, everyone gets a laptop, there’s Wi-Fi in the school, and we don’t get any of that,” she said.

Her oldest daughter’s high school shares a nurse with another school, and a guidance counselor is there only two days a week, she said. And because the state doesn’t provide enough funding, property taxes in their neighborhood are high to make up the difference; the Millers pay $10,000 a year.

“If we had known, we would have looked harder to move into a different area,” Miller said. “There’s no other school we can send them to without moving. There is no workaround.”

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