It took ten years of my life, from 1989 to 1999 to finally finish with PARSS v. Casey (Ridge). I believe that it was the seminal event in my strange career in education. As I have said, I really became interested in school finance when I became a superintendent of schools and took courses for my doctorate at Lehigh. I am not a math person, however, I learned to love statistics and do so to this day. I have learned to become data driven as a result of my doctorate and the good offices of Dr. Charles Guditus, my advisor. The beginning of it all was a case that came before the Supreme Court in 1973 called Rodriguez v. the San Antonio School District. Mr. Rodgriguez had his children in the San Antonio School District and was aware that the suburbs seemed to have more resources for their children than did San Antonio. Some fairness had not been a part of school funding in is state ( and maybe still is not).
The case went to the Supremes, who said, essentially, that education was not a constitutional issue. It was not mentioned in the federal constitution and was a state matter. The actual answers were much more complicated, but that was the gist of it. Cases were to be fought in state courts across the nation. The California case Serrano v. Priest just a year before had proclaimed that a child’s education should not be based on the wealth of where they lived. This case began an avalanche of equity cases around the country. Whether equal protection under the law ( state constitutions) or other parts of state constitutions, there were decisions either way.
In 1983, a group of rural educators had been gathered, by the then Commissioner of Education, Dr. Peg Smith to see how the Department of Education could help small and rural districts. She appointed Joe Bard to head this group and come up with some suggestions that might help small rural districts to move forward. At the same time, a group of school superintendents, led by Jack Lawrie of Canton in Northern PA and Dawson Detwiler in Columbia Borough and Bob Cercone of Freedom in Beaver County, gathered to talk about the unfairness of the present system of funding schools. They called themselves the 80% group, because any funds they got from the state was cut by 20% because the state did not provide the funds.
Somehow these two groups merged at some time in 1984 and announced themselves as the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS). They hired an executive director and began to lobby the legislature. I was part of both of those groups. As an I.U. Director, I had more contact with the Harrisburg scene and was willing to gather forces to help with any of the influencing. It was at that time that I really got into looking into school finance systems across the country. My board understood what I was doing. They were as behind me as they could be. They all represented the kind of districts that had been screwed out of many millions of dollars over the years. At one time, in the 1980’s they were taken for about 50 million dollars for the seventeen school districts.
By the time the 1980’s were coming to an end, the PARSS group began to formulate a plan to sue the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania because of the lack of resources for rural schools. Since a large percentage of school revenue came from real estate taxes, even schools that got a bunch of dough from the state, the difference was made up in massive real estate value and many times lower taxes. In some cases of mil of tax in a rural are would bring in $10,000 but in a wealthy district it might bring in $1,000,000. The disparities in resources was growing as the percent of state support dipped from 54% in 1974 to about 40 percent in 1989. It dipped lower than that to 35% in later years.
There was no going back when we decided to sue the Commonwealth. I was put in charge of the case, to gather support from other education groups and to find attorneys and research other states that had gone through an equity suit. The only education group that seemed to interested in supporting this effort was the Pennsylvania State Education Association ( PSEA, the teacher’s union). Their Executive Director, Tony Newman and general counsel, Mark Widoff, were there with some funding and research for the next eight years.
Mark Widoff, Dawson Detwiler ( then President and later Executive Director of PARSS) began to explore who might look to for some guidance in the case. The Kentucky equity suit had just been decided for the plaintiffs in Rose v. Council for Better Education, Inc. ( a group of rural school districts). The Supreme Court in Kentucky had declared that the school funding system in Kentucky was unconstitutional. The legislature had developed a plan to change the funding system and create other reform agendas to help out those schools that were suffering from a lack of resources. The lead attorney for the plaintiffs was Bert T. Combs, former Governor, Judge of the federal appeals court and a long time advocate for public education, both in and out of government.
We planned a visit to Lexington, Kentucky very soon afterward and met with Judge Combs and his associate Debra Dawahare and got some really great advice and a whole litany of what not to do. We were told not to antagonize the wealthy districts by going after them and saying that they had too much money. While going to court, we should also be lobbying the legislature for a change in the system. We should find a champion in the legislature who would speak for us when the time came. As it turned out, we followed all of the advice given by Judge Combs. He was truly a gentleman in the most genuine way. I am not sure that I have met someone else like him other than William Scranton ( who will come later in the story).
We left the meeting on a high. We knew that PA was similar to Kentucky in some ways and also different in a number of others. We then decided to start accumulating a fund to help us with the case. PARSS decided to incorporate as a 501C3 as well as a 501C4 so that we could collect the money and use it for the case. This was not an era of email yet. We wrote many letters and told our rural schools that we were anticipating suing the Commonwealth of PA and that we would ask them for $1 per student in their school districts. The final count was eventually 214 school districts that joined including some of our cities- Harrisburg, York, Reading, Altoona, among them. Philadelphia did not seem to be interested in this activity. We were happy not to have the tail wagging the dog.
We interviewed a number of attorneys, including the Ed. Law Center that had fought successfully for the schools in New Jersey in Abbott v. Burke. We decided on one of the top law firms in Pennsylvania- Pepper Hamilton and Scheetz. Their main offices, I believe, were in Philly and Washington, but their Harrisburg office was manned by Fred Speaker, former Attorney General for William Scranton. Fred was a large person in frame and in spirit. He was garrulous and fun and never flew in a plane. He went to all Penn State games, and he went to all of them by car or bus. He was very proud of that accomplishment. Fred gathered a small force of attorneys in his office, including Bridget Montgomery and later headed by Tom Schmidt. When Fred passed away a number of years later, Tom became the lead attorney and one of my good friends.
I was very fortunate to be an I.U. Director with access to the other 28 I.U. Directors in the state. I was given permission by each of them, save one, to address their superintendents at an I.U. meeting and talk to them about the case. I was warmly received even in the wealthier areas and managed to get support from some of the wealthy districts. I traveled to most I.U.s in a single engine aircraft piloted by Bill Regester, my neighbor in Clarion and the superintendent of a local school district. He was so magnanimous and only asked that I pay for the gas, which I did. The adventures flying into suburban Towanda, between two mountains, or landing on a strip which had a house and a dog on the tarmac gave me great respect for the Wright brothers.
We collected about $700,000 along the way and paid that out by the end of the case. However, because of the length of the case, and those who interceded against us- a wealthy school district and a group of wealthy school districts ( who eventually became OUR intervenors) the cost of the case was more than $2,000,000. Pepper Hamilton understood the quandary we would have been in and did the rest of the work pro bono, except for their immediate expenses in the case, such as duplication and paid witnesses.
Our next step was to visit Governor Scranton in his home city. That meeting took place in the Fall of 1990. Governor Scranton listened to our plans. He pointed out that one of the main goals of the Consolidation Act of 1965 was to create more opportunities for youngsters in larger settings. He believed that, for the most part, that had been a positive thing. However, he was quick to point out that there were still deep divisions in the state economically. Those divisions has been exacerbated over the years. He was able to remember the two districts from 1966 that been the highest and lowest spenders. Interestingly enough those same two school districts are the same today. He was quick to point out, however that the disparities are certainly greater today than they had been in 1966.
Governor Scranton reviewed the philosophical underpinnings of such a case and told us that he thought that the legislature would eventually be the prime movers in any solution, but that we should attempt to contact Governor Casey to see if there was anything that he could do to help us. In fact, Governor Casey had tried to implement an “equity supplement” in the 1989-90 budget deliberations. He was not able to get it through the legislature. Governor Casey was also, at the same time, trying to revise the taxing scheme in Pennsylvania so that poorer areas could benefit. That attempt did not succeed.
PARSS did contact Governor Casey soon after the meeting with Governor Scranton. His reaction was positive, but he could not be sure of what the future might hold. He was in the midst of a Gubernatorial campaign that would see him win a second term. PARSS attention turned to an essentially judicial solution to the problems of disparity of resources and equal opportunity for youngsters in the state.
On January 10,1991, PARSS filed its case in both the Commonwealth Court and in Federal District Court.The complaint described the disparities between districts with very few resources and those with great resources. The prologue of the complaint said ” The plaintiffs seek a declaratory judgement that the Pennsylvania scheme for funding instructional expenses in public schools, currently set forth in 24 P.S. 25-201 et seq., is unconstitutional because it violates the education clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution Article III 14 and the right to equal protection of the laws guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article I 1 and Article III 32 42 U.S.C. 1983, and the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution . . .Plaintiffs ask this Court to issue a declaratory judgement that the present scheme for funding public education in the Commonwealth violates 42 U.S.C. 1983 and the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the United States Constitution and is therefore unconstitutional, to grant the appropriate injunctive relief to effectuate this declaration, and to grant whatever relief it deems just in the circumstances.”
As 1000 of us stood in the capitol to tell the state of our case, I stood mute and looked up at the capitol dome in all of its beauty. It was at that moment that I realized that the time was over for me as I.U. Director. The case was much too important to do it part time. I came home that night and spoke to Carol and told her of my feelings. As always, whatever scheme I came up with, she supported. She has always been that way. She also believed that it would eventually be a good thing for kids that didn’t have much, but the education that could elevate them. That night I also called Dick Meader, President of the I.U. Board and told him of my plans. I said that at the end of June, I would be leaving the I.U. to pursue the case. He also said that he thought that it was a good idea. After all, he represented one of those poor rural districts.
If you want, you can look at the case in summary ( my work) on a day to day basis and see what happened. Just go onto http://www.parss.org and on the right side look at the equity suit. There you will have a complete history, but not the end of things.
In our case, Judge Pellegrini of Commonwealth court from Allegheny County was not as conversant with school funding on a state wide basis, as he might have been. As the case wound down, it was apparent that we were not going to convince him that things were really screwed up. He kept asking us if we were shooting for an exact number of dollars per child. We had our own experts, Kern Alexander and Bob Salmons, national experts on the subject and witnesses in the Rose suit, try to explain, but could not. After a preliminary decision that we were not correct, we went directly to the Supreme Court( King’s Bench) and asked them to make a decision. In September of 1999, the Supreme Court of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania punted on the issue. We did not win and we did not lose. They said that the issue was not justiciable ( not able to be decided by the judiciary). As they say in common parlance, that is like kissing your sister.
However, that was not the end of things, neither was it the beginning. For the ten years prior to the case ending, we had been lobbying for changes in the system and had been amazingly successful. The idea of small district assistance was created, a number of poverty supplements based on personal income per student, aid ratio supplements( a way of telling how poor or wealthy a school district is), and a number of other variables. We had found our champion by the end of the 1990’s. It was Senator James J. Rhoades ( god rest his soul), who had been a junior high principal in Mahanoy City ( Schuylkill County), at the same time that I was a junior high principal in Kutztown. I had met him a number of times at PIAA ( athletic association) meetings.
As a former educator, he understood the difference between those with resources and those without. His senatorial district had been a thriving place till the coal gave out and was now in the same situation that many rural places were. Through him and his staff, most notably David Broderic, we were able to insert many of our ideas about funding. There is no doubt that as time went on, we knew that the legislature was the place that would do the remediation. We owe Senator Rhoades a great debt. His passing a few years ago in an auto accident was a blow to all children in Pennsylvania’s schools. I can still see him on the Senate floor talking about the”boys and girls” who needed education to make it in the world.