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Lawsuit: Pennsylvania is failing its schoolchildren

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 8:16 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania has failed its constitutional duty to provide its students with an adequate education, a long-running lawsuit brought by school districts, parents and activist groups alleged Wednesday before a panel of judges in Philadelphia.

The legal challenge to how schools are funded largely hinges on language in the Pennsylvania constitution that requires lawmakers to provide a thorough and efficient system of public education.

A mother of two children enrolled in a high school outside Philadelphia spoke of jam-packed classrooms without computers or textbooks, where track team members train in hallways because there's no a track. She said the state is clearly failing its pupils.

“It is not fair for our children to have to sit through this every day,” plaintiff Jamella Miller said after court hearing. “We pay taxes just like everyone else.”

The case, which names Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, education department officials and top state legislators as defendants, was previously dismissed in 2015 on the grounds that courts shouldn't be determining how much money equals a proper education. That issue formed both the basis of much of the rebuttals from the defense as well as judges' questions for the plaintiffs.

“We do not want to turn courts into super school boards,” said Patrick M. Northen, a lawyer representing Republican Speaker of the House Mike Turzai.

John Krill, an attorney for Republican President Pro Tempore of the state Senate Joe Scarnati, echoed a similar concern.

“They put everything in the collective laps of this court,” Krill said of the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was revived last September after the state Supreme Court reversed the lower court's decision. The majority opinion, written by Justice David Wecht, says courts shouldn't abandon their responsibility to monitor the decisions of lawmakers.

Wolf cheered the Supreme Court's decision, saying at the time that “while we have made progress to invest hundreds of millions more in our schools and enact a fair funding formula that takes into account the needs of students in their districts, we know more must be done.”

His spokesman referred a reporter seeking comment Wednesday to a recent court filing made by the governor's attorney that reiterates Wolf's prior statement and requests that the case move forward.

The Public Interest Law Center, a group that's part of the legal team representing the plaintiffs, said Pennsylvania ranks 47th in the country for the portion of education spending covered by state funds. The group said billions of dollars would be needed to ensure the education guaranteed by the state constitution.

Michael Vuckovich, interim superintendent for the Greater Johnstown School District, said his schools are facing a nearly $5 million deficit that has forced him to close a school, eliminate after-school programs, increase class sizes and furlough staffers.

“The point we need to make today is that that has an impact on kids,” he said. “The kids who need the most get the least from our system.”

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