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Pennsylvania’s costing-out study made news when it came out this month, and for good reason. Commissioned by the General Assembly in 2006, the study was designed to figure out the actual cost of doing what Pennsylvania has, by statute and regulation, said that it will do � educate all children to “world-class” standards. And the findings are troubling. According to the study, Pennsylvania is seriously under-funding the education of our children � not just in a few especially needy areas, but in 474 of the state’s 501 school districts. What does this mean in real life? Writing a few years ago in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Nancy McGinley, a respected Philadelphia principal, shared her impressions on moving from Philly to Abington Junior High School. The move was only a few miles, but the change in resource levels was huge. Abington had many more staff members, including assistant principals, counselors, nurses, a psychologist, a visiting psychiatrist, a school community coordinator and more. Teachers were better paid, more experienced, and were provided with extra time for planning and conferences. Classes were smaller. Up-to-date textbooks and technology were in good supply. Abington had a rigorous honors program, extracurricular activities, learning clinics � the list of disparities went on. Is it any wonder that the achievement levels at the two schools were (and still are) dramatically different? As McGinley put it, “I did not become a better principal when I moved to the suburbs, but I was given the tools necessary to produce better results for children.” Such disparities are a familiar story � despite Chief Justice Earl Warren’s equally familiar declaration, in Brown v. Board of Education, that educational opportunity “is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.” True, resources aren’t everything, families make a difference, and the effects of crime, poor health care, and other powerful forces must also be taken into account. Still, any student with access to (for example) an up-to-date chemistry lab, a qualified chemistry teacher, and plenty of extra support has a better chance of succeeding at chemistry than one who does not. And anyone who spends a few hours answering the phone at the Education Law Center will hear from a lot of families whose children are not getting this sort of fair shot. What became of the “right” to equal educational opportunity announced in Brown? The chief justice was speaking, of course, in the context of racial integration; and as we know from cases such as this year’s decision in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, the court’s enthusiasm for dealing with such issues has waned. But most Americans still endorse the goal of ensuring that all children have access to a quality education � even while, perhaps, feeling some doubt about whether we’ll ever get there. Our chances seemed slim only a few years ago, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court � in a case brought by some terrific Philadelphia lawyers � declared our state’s constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient public education” to be nonjusticiable. The court was not moved by the fact that similar language in other state constitutions had been held, by sister courts, to require major increases in school funding and significant steps toward equalization of opportunity. But Pennsylvania’s adoption of “world-class” academic standards for its public schools, now embodied in state regulations, moved the debate forward. The standards set out the basic knowledge and skills that all students need in order to graduate and achieve academic and career success. If the state sets standards for students, it seems fair to argue, it must also ensure that all students have an equitable opportunity to meet those standards. The argument has been reinforced by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which requires that states enable all students to achieve “proficiency” on state academic standards. Additional state and federal laws set out academic requirements for children with disabilities, English language learners, and other disadvantaged students. Yet as the costing-out study found, most of Pennsylvania’s school districts simply cannot get their children to legally required levels in the absence of additional resources. Over the past few years, Gov. Edward G. Rendell and legislative leaders have pushed through some significant increases in the education budget. Our organization and many others have pushed for these increases, which have helped some of our state’s neediest children. But the increases have not remedied fundamental problems in our school funding laws, including the fact that our state share of education funding is among the lowest in the nation. Because of that fact, school districts depend far too heavily on local property taxes – which is why some districts can afford to spend $17,000 per student, while other, property-poorer districts can barely manage $7,000, even while raising their property tax rates through the roof. Now for the opportunity. The costing-out study, now available on the Web site of the state Board of Education, includes a whole series of expert analyses, all of which point to the need for a significant funding increase for our schools. The study also notes that state and local tax rates in Pennsylvania are lower than average rates in the six states that surround us. So it’s fairly clear what, at this point, we need to do. Already, a bipartisan group of legislators has introduced a resolution calling for the development of a new funding plan in response to the findings of the study. The big question now is whether larger numbers of legislators can be helped to see that finding money for schools is a priority. A stronger education system will pay off for Pennsylvania, where the economy is currently growing at only half the national average. And, of course, it’s not just about Pennsylvania. When we ask ourselves how the big challenges that face us nationally and around the world are going to be addressed, there’s really only one answer. Problems are solved by people with skills and education � and it’s the children in our schools now who can become those people, if we help them to do so. Lawyers have done a lot for equal educational opportunity over time, and we have a chance to do more now. Let your clients and business colleagues hear from you about the importance of finding resources for schools. Let your legislators and political leaders hear from you. This is “a moment” � we have a sympathetic governor, an education-focused mayor, a nucleus of committed legislators, and a first-rate costing-out study. Let’s make something of it. Len Rieser is the co-director of the Education Law Center-PA, a public-interest law firm with offices in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. He has been with the center since 1982; before that, he was at the Civil Rights Division, U. S. Department of Justice.

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