HARRISBURG — A looming state court challenge to the way Pennsylvania funds its schools could have dramatic implications, particularly for small and poorer schools that struggle to compete when judged against school districts that can lean move heavily on local property taxes.

The same law firm that represented the League of Women Voters in the redistricting lawsuit is representing the school districts in a lawsuit challenging that the way the state funds schools is unfair to rural and poor schools.

The state Supreme Court ruled last year that the case should go to trial. Oral arguments in a last-ditch effort by the Legislature to get the case thrown out are scheduled for Wednesday.

The case has been bouncing around the state’s appeals courts since it was filed in 2014. Gov. Tom Wolf in January asked the court to get the case moving to trial so that there can be a resolution.

The case comes as Pennsylvania wallows at the bottom nationally in terms of how much burden the state shoulders toward the cost of K-12 public education.

A study released last week by the Education Trust found that only three other states — New Hampshire, Nebraska and South Dakota — provide a smaller share of the cost of educating students. In Pennsylvania, the state government only contributes 39 percent of the cost of public schools.

That leaves local school districts no place to turn but to lean on local taxes, primarily property taxes, said Ed Albert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. His organization is one of the plaintiffs being represented by the Public Interest Law Center in the school funding lawsuit.

Albert pointed to a study completed by the Pennsylvania Partnership for Children which concluded that 202 rural schools in Pennsylvania were being unfairly underfunded by the state.

And in school districts where the school board doesn’t think the community can afford higher taxes or board members are just unwilling to raise taxes, this results in huge disparities in spending on school, Albert said.

Closing the gap could carry a steep price tag.

By some estimates, the total price of boosting spending in the poorer districts to match spending in the state’s wealthier districts could cost between $3 billion and $4 billion, sad Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center.

The higher price tag would be the cost of providing enough to match what’s spent in the districts that have the best academic performance in the state, he said. The lower price tag would be the cost of boosting spending for the poorer districts to the level of the statewide median cost of educating a student.

The state now spends about $6 billion a year on its share of the cost of basic education funding.

In court filings, attorneys for the Republican legislative leaders are arguing that the lawsuit should be dismissed because the state passed a law in 2016 that creates a formula for how school funding should be split between districts.

But Churchill said that law doesn’t solve the problem because the state is only using the formula to determine how to spend additional funding added in the state budget since the law was passed.

That doesn’t solve the problem that poor schools were getting short-changed before the new funding formula was developed, he said.

“They’ve locked in the inequities,” he said.

The Public Interest Law Center, was also involved in the lawsuit that has, so far, successfully challenged the state’s congressional districts. The state Supreme Court agreed with their plaintiffs, the League of Women Voters and a group of voters, who’d argued that the state’s 2011 redistricting plan was illegally gerrymandered. The state Supreme Court then developed its own map plan after the Legislature and the governor failed to produce an agreed-to alternative. That decision is now pending challenges in federal court.

While the Supreme Court’s gerrymandering decision was decided largely on party lines, the decision last September to move the school funding lawsuit toward trial had support from a Republican justice, Sallie Mundy. She joined with four Democratic justices — David Wecht, Christine Donohue, Debra Todd and Kevin Dougherty— in the majority opinion, which found that the question of whether the Legislature is providing enough funding for schools is something the court can consider.

“Judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches,” Wecht wrote in the majority opinion. “It is fair neither to the people of the Commonwealth nor the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate.”

Albert said that he’s confident that the court’s will eventually determine that the school funding has been unfair to the poorer schools.

“I think the court will say let’s get this fixed, because this has been talked about and talked about and talked about” without a solution, he said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for The Meadville Tribune and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at jfinnerty@cnhi.com and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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