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The Coming Battle Over Public School Funding

Philadelphia public schools classroom

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.”

The Education Law Center-PA and the Public Interest Law Center, who represent petitioners in the case, released the following joint statement:

“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.”

5 Responses

  1. Dems need to keep in mind they have made tremendous strides in Bucks and Montgomery Counties and they have elected Governors and Senators and taken over the State House with their increased popularity in the suburbs. Aside from State College and parts of western Pa and Northeastern Pa a lot of the State is Alabama (red) and Republican. So, help everybody but it would be most unwise to have it at the expense of counties who have helped the Dems. This is obvious and not late breaking news.

  2. Rep Cutler apparently is confusing the Commonwealth Court which has a Republican bent and ruled against the funding process with the Supreme Court. The problem is the money for public ed raised is finite and the method of raising money is through property taxes which too is finite. So, where does the money come from to give tons to everybody? And is it helpful to Pennsylvania to have a stronger economic district lose funds to a less strong one economically? What some Democrats do not understand is that if they reduce funding to certain districts to help others that this will open the floodgates to charter schools, private secondary education and overall hurt public ed in PA.

    1. There are many possible routes to gather revenue via taxes. Capital gains. Earned income. Transactional. Sales. Combined can fund education enough to actually reduce property taxes… but republicons continue to treat taxes as tyranny rather than the necessity of a commonwealth.

    2. The floodgates to charter (and cyber) schools has long been open. And their designation as pseudo-public schools contributes greatly to the funding issues. Why, for instance, are taxpayers funding million dollar ad campaigns for charter schools? School districts run no advertising campaigns yet are forced to fund the ubiquitous ads for Commonwealth Charter and others. Why, as another example, are school districts forced to fund the purchase of real estate for charter schools – where a growing number of these purchases have nothing to do with the central mission of a school? It is beyond time to reign in the charter schools. Open their books. Make their meetings subject to the requirements of the Sunshine Act. And, while we are at it, start making the regular public schools subject to the Sunshine Act, too. Too many financial decisions being made out of the public eye.


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