Will PA’s Supreme Court Justices Be Just?

A group of citizens and child advocates brought a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Legislature and the Governor.  Both want the Supreme Court to ignore the current and stubborn inequity in our schools so they can continue to play sandbox politics with our children’s future.

It is well documented that in most places in America, if you are poor, you will have far fewer  opportunities than if you are wealthy. It plays out in access to healthy food, air, good healthcare and schools, etc.

PA has the ignoble distinction of being the most inequitable state when it comes to school funding. And, as education is a key determining factor in a student’s future quality of life, our General Assembly has damned millions of students to a lower quality of life because they choose to deliberately ignore and further cement the inequities that exist.

Pennsylvania ignores Constitutional obligation of equity

In Pennsylvania, like other places, property taxes determine the value of your child’s education. In many states, the gap between property tax revenue and operational cost? is factored in and states will try and bolster areas with low revenue with more funding. PA contributes 30% to school funding, while the national average is 44%.

Although several studies determined that our students need an extra 3-4 billion to receive a “thorough and efficient education,” this year our students received an extra $400 million.

Fortunately, there are advocacy groups who won’t let this die and won’t remain silent-much to our politicians chagrin. Groups like the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), who filed a lawsuit decades ago, but somehow were not able to prove that fewer resources created inequity and it was thrown out.

Today, after two long years, the PA Supreme Court will decide whether all kids matter or not in the Keystone State with politicians that mumble and fumble like the Keystone Cops. The lawsuit brought by six Pennsylvania school districts, seven parents, and two advocacy groups rightfully claims that our state is ignoring the state Constitution by consistently underfunding districts with high levels of Black and Latino students. Many rural areas receive less than their share as well, but as is consistent with American history, it is “better” to be poor and white than Black.

The PA courts are reticent to demand justice for our students though. The suit was thrown out in a lower court because the justices believe the courts have no business weighing in on whether children should receive fair and equitable funding. The courts don’t have jurisdiction on equity in schools. Who elected these guys?

We need justice from our justices

A 6th grader can tell you that courts (sometimes) intervened when states were oppressive towards students. They can tell you about Brown vs Board of Education. They can tell you that if a study shows that students need 4 billion more and you show up with $400 million that someone is being grossly shortchanged.

Our governor, who campaigned under a flag for kids, has (again) missed the mark. Instead of siding with the plaintiffs (and the people), he is siding with the state legislation to say that the court should throw the case out. What?!

We know that campaigning and governing are two different things, but let’s be clear, the governor wants to continue to spar (and lose) to the legislature when it comes to funding. He demanded more for our schools; the Legislature laughed and tossed him $400 million. Now, he is saying that he should continue the “fight” and the other branch of government shouldn’t get involved.

Sir, our kids can’t wait for you and can’t afford for you to lose another fight. Hence, the lawsuit.

Our governor, who should be siding with our students and the immediacy necessary to right the ship, is telling Black parents to be patient while he works with the Republicans to take the long winding road to an uncertain future. His first year in office, constituents waited almost 9 months for the legislature to perform their Constitutional obligation and pass a balanced budget. That patience wasn’t rewarded with fair funding. During Governor Wolf’s second year, he got more funding for schools, $400 million, but overall, only 3% of state funding is fairly distributed.

When 97% of almost 6 billion dollars is inequitably distributed, we need more than our governor’s boxing gloves. We need justices to serve justice. In the past, they’ve failed. Let’s see if they have even a fraction of the courage of a Judge Smith-Ribner or even the Connecticut judge who tilted the scales of justice back in favor of kids.

May the other kids of Pennsylvania receive justice and win. Our affluent kids have been winning all along.

What do you think?

About the author

Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki is the principal of Mastery Charter School–Shoemaker Campus, a neighborhood public charter school in Philadelphia that serves 750 students in grades 7-12. From 2013-2015, he was one of three principal ambassador fellows working on issues of education policy and practice with U.S. Department of Education under Secretary Arne Duncan.

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