PA lawmakers put education at top of agenda in election year

Part 51 of 51 in the series Educating America

Lawmakers are betting that education is the big issue with voters.

By Maura Pennington |

PHILADELPHIA — In the fight to win control of Harrisburg in 2014, the civil rights of students are in the forefront.

Education funding, access and outcomes in Pennsylvania have become central issues in a tense election year for the state. National activists are drawing attention to claims of inequality, while state legislators argue for budget priorities.

Dianne Piché, senior counsel and director of education program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, and David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center in New Jersey, have raised the possibility of legal action to target fairness in education funding.

“The failure of states like Pennsylvania to guarantee all children an adequate education is among the most serious civil rights challenges in the United States today,” said Piché at a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Philadelphia last week.

Pennsylvania is spending more than $5.5 billion subsidizing basic education costs in the state’s 500 school districts, the highest total in history. In Philadelphia, the state is spending more than $983 million this year, also the highest in history.

Outcomes vary across urban, suburban and rural communities, though, and achievement gaps persist.

Education is an emotional issue with voters in a year when Pennsylvania’s governor, all 203 members of the state House of Representatives, half of the state Senators, and the entire 18-member U.S. congressional delegation face elections.

“We know that the number one issue with voters is education and how we fund our public schools,” said Rep. Madeleine Dean, D-Montgomery. “How we educate our kids tells us how our economy will be.”

The push from reform coalitions in Washington raises the political stakes of education policy in the commonwealth and puts pressure on the incumbent administration and legislators.

“Any interest from the national government or national groups will give us some momentum here in Pennsylvania,” said Rep. W. Curtis Thomas, D-Philadelphia.

But Republicans stress that the current state budget spends more than $10 billion in state funds on education, including the $5.5 billion that goes directly to school districts’ costs.

“To continue to make education a state government priority we need more than rhetoric,” said state House Appropriations Chairman Rep. Bill Adolph, R-Delaware.

The complications that arise in providing public education aren’t simply a matter of money.

Some national advocacy groups think that’s where a lawsuit comes in and are eyeing the judicial climate to find potential avenues for dramatic change.

In the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that education is not a fundamental right under the Constitution, but the issue can still be battled in state courts. With the codification of education standards in recent years, the legal grounds to argue for equitable schooling have grown more substantial.

Whether or not Pennsylvania picks that fight, Democrats have their focus on political reality.

“There’s a case to be made with the public,” said Rep. Mike Sturla, D-Lancaster, chairman of the House Democratic Policy Committee.

Democrats hope to find enough support on education to claim victory in November’s elections. But Republicans are capitalizing on the issue too. This week, a GOP proposal to create a commission to study school funding inequity was moving through the state House.

For both sides, education will be front and center in the coming year.

Contact Maura Pennington at and follow her on Twitter @whatsthefracas.

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