CONTEXT OF THE EQUITY SUIT
From the mid 1970’s to the present the disparities between the wealthy and the poor school districts in the Commonwealth have grown. Despite legislative activity, the disparities have grown larger and the local tax efforts of poor and rural schools have grown greater. Any funding system that relies on local wealth will always disadvantage poor places. Originally, in 1990, PARSS approached the legislature and the executive branch before going to court. PARSS has an indefinite stay in Federal Court (Judge Caldwell) and is in Commonwealth Court with Judge Pellegrini. Papers were first entered on January 10, 1991. Delays have taken place because of the retirement of Judge David Craig and a change in administrations. Within the confines of status conferences, Judge Pellegrini has been asking the two sides to settle. That did not happen.
There are two Amici- PSBA and PSEA and one set of interventions- the Association of School Districts for Equity and Excellence (ASDE). These are essentially the wealthy districts in the Commonwealth. Their intervention was originally for the Commonwealth. They have now switched sides and we have an agreement with them.
Judge Pellegrini has tried to keep all sides on task and has been forthright about what might occur if there is no settlement. It appears that he does not want this to be an Alabama case, where the parties seem to return annually to revisit their complaint. Judge Pellegrini understands that this case will have its greatest impact if the parties can agree and bring their agreement to the legislature.
PARSS has restrained itself for five years by not offering its own solution. However, with the advent of the NCSL report, a change in administration and a request from the Senate Education Committee to hear about solutions to educational funding questions, PARSS relented and produced a funding and taxation scheme.
On of the more difficult hurdles to overcome in the case itself, from a legal standpoint, was the issue of education as a fundamental right in the Commonwealth. Many of the other cases that have succeeded across the nation have had some judicial declaration that this was so. Court decisions in PA have has little to say about this concept until very recently. In the Wilkinsburg School District v. Wilkinsburg Education Association, the Supreme Court has declared “Education is a fundamental Right.”
One of the reasons that PARSS did not list the two Houses of the Legislature as one of the defendants, was that we understood that this would mitigate against having the Legislature have a progressive role in the solution. We believe that we are the first state to have action in equity legislation before the case actually went to court.
The creation of the Governor’s School Funding Commission was carefully reviewed by Judge Pellegrini before he allowed it to continue. We believed that it would have to pass his muster before it can have an affect on plans for the case to come to trial. It did not pass his muster and was viewed by disdain by almost all of the educational organizations, the press and the public. It was truly a disappointment.
With the illness of the chief litigator for the defendants and the decision by Judge Pellegrini that he would wait for the Philadelphia decision, we complete our 6th year in court and begin our seventh. The trial should last 4 to 6 weeks.