All that campaign talk about fairly funding public schools?
The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania agrees.
In a lengthy 786-page order issued on Tuesday, President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer found the state’s public school funding system to be unconstitutional.
Her ruling stated that the General Assembly has not fulfilled its legal mandate nor “fulfilled its obligations to all children under the Education Clause. Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes.
“The disparity among school districts with high property values and incomes and school districts with low property values and incomes is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective.”
However, she did not direct the Legislature on how much aid to distribute, or how, or give a deadline.
The plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which included six school districts – William Penn School District; Panther Valley School District; The School District of Lancaster; Greater Johnstown School District; Wilkes-Barre Area School District; and Shenandoah Valley School District – the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, presented evidence at trial that state schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate they said does not account for spending on special education and school buildings.
The decision, which is expected to be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, brings a close to a process that included a four-month-long trial that concluded last March. It also marks the beginning of what promises to be a long slog for officials to change how the state pays for education. Defendants have until March 9 to file an appeal.
Gov. Josh Shapiro filed a brief supporting the lawsuit in his role as state attorney general and pledged to “fully fund” schools while on the campaign trail.
His first budget will be presented to the General Assembly on March 7 that may provide clues as to the direction his administration wishes to take.
“This is a major victory for the students, their teachers, and for all Pennsylvanians,” said Democratic Senate Appropriations Chairman Vincent Hughes (D-Philadelphia/Montgomery). “The ruling makes clear what we’ve been raising the alarm about and fighting to fix for many years: Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unfair, inequitable, inadequate and has been hurting our students. All of our children deserve a 21st century education.”
“Yesterday’s Commonwealth Court decision is disappointing, but not surprising from a state judiciary that consistently identifies itself as a legislature to reach policy gains political allies cannot achieve in the General Assembly,” said House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster). “Unfortunately, the problems existing in our public education system go well beyond funding. The only part of optimism in yesterday’s decision is the recognition that merely providing more money to the public school system is not the only available answer to fix a failing system.”
“Today’s decision is no surprise – if you talk to students, families, and educators – they know that our schools have never been fully or fairly funded,” said Democratic Senate Education Chair Lindsey M. Williams. “We have the funding necessary to fulfill our constitutional promise to all of Pennsylvania’s students. It’s far past time for the legislature to prioritize students over their political agendas and create a system where all students have access to the quality public education they are guaranteed by our state constitution.”
“Today’s decision declaring Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional is a historic victory for Pennsylvania’s public school children. It will change the future for millions of families so that children are no longer 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.”
“All witnesses agree that every child can learn,” Cohn Jubelirer wrote. “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth.”