HARRISBURG (April 4) – Some House GOP lawmakers are looking to repeal a provision of the Education Code they claim is unconstitutional, saying it funds school districts in the fastest-growing counties unfairly.
The group of lawmakers are targeting the 1991 “hold harmless” provision of the Education Code. That provision says no school district can receive less state funding than the year before and is based on 1990 census.
After numerous legislative tries to change the provision failed, one lawmaker said he’s planning to finance a lawsuit against the state to force a change through the courts.
Rep. Mario Scavello, R-Monroe, said during a press conference Wednesday the provision violates the equal protection clause of the state constitution because school districts in fast-growing counties like Monroe County aren’t properly funded under the formula based on the 1990 census data. The lawsuit also would seek reimbursements for school districts for revenue lost under the formula, he said.
“If lawmakers in other parts of the state can file and win lawsuits regarding the state’s redistricting map, which has never happened before, there’s no reasons why we shouldn’t be able to sue the state based on an unconstitutional education funding formula,” said Scavello, referring to the state Supreme Court’s decision earlier this year to reject proposed legislative district maps.
“You would think that commonsense and logic would dictate state funding formulas are based on the needs of the school district and best meeting the needs of the students. But it’s not always the case,” said Rep. Rosemary Brown, R-Monroe, who joined Scavello and other lawmakers during Wednesday’s announcement. “… How can the state fairly say that the needs of the school district cannot change over time?”
If the lawsuit were successful in repealing the hold harmless provision, funding for about three-quarters of the state’s school districts – covered roughly by 140 House members – would decrease, Scavello said.
“Regardless of the outcome of potential litigation, the Corbett Administration has already taken steps to improve the process of school funding,” said Education Department spokesman Tim Eller.
“The governor has advocated for a student-focused funding system by proposing a real-time data collection tool that would allow the Department to move the Commonwealth toward a student-centered system of education financing that collects data on student enrollment and attendance,” Eller said in an email.
House Republican Whip Stan Saylor, R-York, a supporter of the lawsuit, says the courts need to force the change because the Legislature would not vote on the change.
“When you have 140 members in the House that benefit from a formula that punishes children in other counties, it’s just not going to change,” he said. “People aren’t willing to vote to give up money that goes and flows into their school districts and keep their property taxes very, very low.”
“This is isn’t a battle that has not been won because of a lack of effort by people from the growing areas of the state,” said Rep. Ron Miller, R-York. “It’s just the fact that it’s really hard to convince people to take money from their constituents to help ours.”
Similar attempts made over the years to change the funding formula were unsuccessful. He said past attempts failed in the Legislature because changing the formula would negatively impact 140 House members in slow-population growth areas that don’t want to strip funding from their school districts.
“This is déjà vu, as [famed baseball player] Yogi Berra would say, all over again,” said Arnold Hillman of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.
“PARSS sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania from 1991 to 1999 on exactly the same thing, and we were told by the Supreme Court that it’s none of their business, which is very unfortunate,” Hillman said.
He said the state funded schools at 54 percent in 1974, but it is now down to 34 percent, he said.
“The formula is not only inequitable, it has been tampered with …since the 1980s by every administration and every Legislature, for whatever reasons they were,” he said.
By Kevin Zwick