On May 7, 2012, a trial began in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania on the claims of the Chester Upland School District and parents and taxpayers in the district. Plaintiffs claim that the state’s failure to provide adequate funding to the district violates the rights of their students with disabilities to a free appropriate public education under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The court dismissed the plaintiffs’ broader federal claims, which alleged that underfunding of the district’s schools violates their federal rights to equal protection of the laws and to due process, but invited them to submit an amended complaint that re-alleges these claims with more specific facts to justify them. Chester Upland School Dist. v. Pennsylvania.
Chester Upland’s financial problems began in 1994 when the state declared the district financially distressed. The state took it over and eventually allowed for-profit companies to take over its management. They failed to rectify the district’s financial ills. In 2010, the state returned the governance of the district to a locally elected school board. That year the State Education Department loaned the district $6.2 million and provided extraordinary grants of $5 million.
But when the district last January asked the state to advance it $18.7 million of its scheduled $36 million 2011-12 state subsidy, the state refused, citing decades of financial mismanagement. According to the plaintiffs, part of the district’s financial ills come from the fact that half of the students in district attend charter schools, and state law requires the district to provide charter schools large per student payments, including approximately $10,000 more than the per capita cost for educating students with disabilities in the public school for each student with disabilities that the charter schools educate.
Although the Pennsylvania state constitution has specific language requiring the state to “maintain a thorough and efficient school system,” plaintiffs presumably chose to file the claim in federal court because the Pennsylvania state courts have repeatedly rejected both equity and education adequacy claims as being non-justiciable. In the 1970s and 1990s, plaintiffs in three separate lawsuits claimed that the state’s then-current education finance system violated the state constitution. In Danson v. Casey, 399 A.2d 360 (1979), the state supreme court held that plaintiffs failed to state a justiciable cause of action, and in 1998, the commonwealth court held that two additional challenges to the funding system were also non-justiciable: in Marrero v. Commonwealth, 709 A.2d 956, the court dismissed an “adequacy” claim, and in Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools v. Ridge, 737 A.2d 246, the state supreme court affirmed Commonwealth Court’s dismissal of plaintiffs’ “equity” claim.
Plaintiffs’ federal constitutional claims attempt to distinguish the negative precedent for pursuing educational equity cases set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Rodriguez v. San Antonio Ind’t Sch. Dist., 411 U.S. 1 (1973) by asserting race discrimination, denial of due process, and a failure to provide students in the district an education that is comparable to that of their peers in other districts.