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Trial Set for 2020 in Long-Running Pennsylvania School Funding Lawsuit

A 2014 lawsuit challenging the way the state of Pennsylvania funds its schools may head to trial in the summer of 2020—nearly six years after it was first filed in state court.

In a Dec. 6 order, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer set a tentative trial date of summer 2020, with discovery in the case scheduled to be completed by October next year.

The lawsuit could radically alter the way Pennsylvania pays for K-12 schooling. It was first filed in November 2014, on behalf of six school districts—the William Penn, Panther Valley,  Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area, and Shenandoah Valley—seven parents, including some whose children were enrolled in Philadelphia public schools; the Pennsylvania Association of Small and Rural Schools; and the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP. 

The plaintiffs alleged that the state General Assembly and then-Republican Governor Tom Corbett had not lived up to their constitutional obligation of sufficiently funding schools so that students could receive a thorough and efficient public education.

While the state adopted new standards, it did not provide the districts with the tools—or funds—to meet those standards, the lawsuit argues. And the inadequate funding has forced districts to rely more heavily on property taxes and disadvantaged students in districts that did not have a large tax base to tap into, they maintain.

The funding mechanism has changed under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf—who defeated Corbett in the 2014 election and is now named as a defendant in the lawsuit. 

In challenging the lawsuit, State Sen. Pro-Tempore Joseph Scarnati, who was also named as a defendant, argued that the state had adopted a new funding formula in 2016 that sent more money to districts with higher need, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported. Another legislator's spokesman told the paper that school funding had increased by $2 billion since 2015.

Other defendants in the lawsuit include House Speaker Michael C. Turzai, Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, and the state board of education, and the state department of education.

But the plaintiffs argued that the funding disparities between wealthier and poor districts had only grown since they brought the legal action against the state, and that an increase in funding had not kept up with rising costs like pension and inflation.  

The case was initially dismissed, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reinstated it last year.

"We're very confident that we'll be able to prove to the court that thousands of children in our state are deprived of the education they deserve, and that they have a constitutional right to receive," Michael Churchill, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said in a press release. "The school districts who have joined our lawsuit know this is true, and students in underfunded schools know this is true. The legislature has the power to fix this, whether they take action before 2020 or wait for us to win at trial."

The plaintiffs are being represented by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center.

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