Court ruling declares Pa.’s school funding system unconstitutional
In her 786-page ruling in the lawsuit filed nine years ago, Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer said she reached her decision “after careful thought and thorough deliberation of the law and the volumes of evidence presented” at the months’ long trial that centered around the state constitutional mandate that a “thorough and efficient system of public education” be maintained and supported and its equal protection clause.
“All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth,” the judge concluded.
Lawsuit background: The lawsuit was filed by six school districts, six sets of parents and two educational advocacy groups against the governor, legislative leaders, the State Board of Education and the education secretary.
The plaintiffs argued that Pennsylvania’s school system is so underfunded it violates the state constitution’s education clause, which requires lawmakers to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” They also argued it violates the constitution’s equal protection clause, saying the kids in low-wealth districts are not being educated on a level playing field with those in wealthier districts.
Legislative leaders countered those arguments by pointing to record investments in education made particularly in recent years, particularly this year when funding rose by $1.3 billion. They further highlighted how that investment compares favorably to other states.
“Pennsylvania currently ranks 7th in the nation in terms of per-pupil spending on education, and school districts are sitting on reserves totaling approximately $4 billion,” former Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman said in 2021. “The idea that the Legislature isn’t properly supporting public schools is patently false.”
The trial began in November 2021 and ran over the course of 49 days with dozens of witnesses testifying live and more through deposition. The trial transcript consumed more than 15,000 pages with nearly 1,700 exhibits.
What people are saying: The Education Law Center-PA and Public Interest Law Center, who represented the districts and parents, called the decision one that will change the future for children being denied the education they deserve.
“The court recognized that our schools require adequate funding to meet our constitution’s mandate. It’s time for our state legislature to fund public schools in every corner of Pennsylvania so all students, whether or not they live in a wealthy community, can receive the quality public education guaranteed in our state constitution,” the law centers said in a statement.
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana County, reacted to the decision, saying, “The Senate Republican Caucus is committed to prioritizing education empowerment and access for students across Pennsylvania, as is evidenced by a historic level of investment in public education included in the current 2022-23 and prior state budgets. Our system has always sought to support state and local taxpayers, whom we will continue to respect moving forward as we address all needs of the commonwealth.”
PA School Works, a non-partisan coalition of organizations representing the state’s urban, suburban, and rural communities, said the ruling confirmed what it said was already known: the school funding system is broken.
“This ruling is a repudiation of a bare-bones system of public education that opponents of this lawsuit defended in court during the trial,” the group said in a statement. “Now, as ordered by the court, the state legislature has no choice but to fix the state’s broken, unjust funding system. We look forward to working with them to achieve that historic goal.”
Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, meanwhile was grateful the judge left it to the legislature and executive branch to find a solution rather than mandating more money be poured into “a broken system.
“The only way to ensure that ‘every student receives a meaningful opportunity’ is for education funding to follow the child,” Benefield said. “Students that are trapped in their zip-code assigned school—especially in low-income and minority communities—often have no alternatives when their academic or social needs are unmet. Only by giving every student direct access to funding for an excellent education of their choice can we meet the court’s new requirements.”
Sen. Lisa Boscola, D-Lehigh/Northampton counties, who has been pushing for changing the school funding system for a decade, also was pleased by the decision.
In a statement about the ruling, Shapiro said, “Creating real opportunity for our children begins in our schools, and I believe every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment, regardless of their zip code. My administration is in the process of thoroughly reviewing the Commonwealth Court’s opinion and we are determining next steps.”