Success of N.J. school-funding suit gives Philadelphia Council an idea: Sue Pa.

Posted: May 27, 2011

This week's court order demanding that New Jersey increase funding for schools has inspired Philadelphia City Council to challenge the state of Pennsylvania.

Councilman Darrell Clarke introduced a resolution yesterday asking the Law Department to represent Council in a lawsuit against Gov. Corbett, challenging the legality of the funding for public education in Philadelphia and urging the state to carry out its constitutional duty.

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that Gov. Chris Christie's school-aid cuts were unconstitutional, and ordered lawmakers to increase funding for poor city schools by $500 million next fiscal year.

The Philadelphia School District faces a $629 million funding gap, and the district has threatened severe cuts to teachers and programs such as full-day kindergarten if it doesn't get the $75 million to $110 million it has requested from the city.

"It's time for us to take some legal action," Clarke said, pointing to the situation in New Jersey. "It's just not fair for us to have to ask the citizens to continue to pay in the city of Philadelphia, and we're sitting on potentially a $700 million surplus from the state. Under the state's statute [it is the state's] primary responsibility to fund the school district."

The cuts would harm the state's poorest school districts. A study in 2007 by the Pennsylvania State Board of Education found that the city's schools were underfunded by more than $4,000 per student - and "that gap hasn't been closed," said Len Rieser, executive director of the Education Law Center.

But the Nutter administration does not appear to favor the Clarke resolution.

"The mayor's view of the resolution is that it will not solve the problem that we are facing now," said mayoral spokesman Mark McDonald. "So ultimately we've arrived at a time for leadership and for deciding how we will address the future of children in Philadelphia."

McDonald added that New Jersey's history of school-funding legal challenges is not comparable to Philadelphia's because the laws and politics differ.

"This is a political stunt by City Council," said Corbett spokesman Kevin Harley. "To file a frivolous and meaningless lawsuit . . . maybe City Council should also sue President Obama because there's no more stimulus funding."

City Solicitor Shelley Smith said the Law Department will consider Council's request.

Similar lawsuits filed against the state have been unsuccessful. The most recent was in 1999, when the city, the school district, the NAACP, students and parents accused the General Assembly of violating the state constitution by failing to provide adequate funding for the district, adding that the constitution obligates the General Assembly to "provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education."

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