The Lead

Court to hear closing arguments in landmark school funding trial

By: - March 9, 2022 7:18 am
Students, families, and education advocates join Children First and Education Voters of Pennsylvania to host a rally on the Capitol steps to “ring the bells of justice,” and call for equitable funding for Pennsylvania public schools. The rally, which took place Friday, Nov. 12, 2021, occurred on the first day of the landmark trial that could change how Pennsylvania funds its 500 school districts. (Capital-Star photo by Marley Parish)

Students, families, and education advocates join Children First and Education Voters of Pennsylvania to host a rally on the Capitol steps, Nov. 12, 2021, the first day of the landmark trial that changed how Pennsylvania funds its 500 school districts (Capital-Star photo).

After four months and more than 14,000 pages of testimony from nearly 40 witnesses, a landmark trial that could change how Pennsylvania pays for public education comes to an end this week.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs — six school districts, four parents, and two statewide organizations — and the defendants — Gov. Tom Wolf, state education officials, and the highest-ranking Republican leaders of the House and Senate — will make their closing arguments in Commonwealth Court on Thursday.

Judge Renee Cohn Juberlirer has presided over the case, which began in November, and surrounds how Pennsylvania funds its public schools and spending disparities across 500 districts.

The statewide appellate court initially dismissed the case, filed by the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center, and Los Angeles-based law firm O’Melveny and Myers, in 2015. The state Supreme Court later revived the case in 2017.

The petitioners claim that the state maintains a funding system that discriminates against students in districts with low incomes and property values. They claim that the gap between what low-wealth school districts have and what they need is at least $4.6 billion.

Wolf, who campaigned on education reform, has proposed increased funding for Pennsylvania’s public schools, including a $1.55 billion investment in K-12 public education for his final budget proposal.

But Republican lawmakers, who are defendants, have said Pennsylvania adequately funds its public schools.

“The question, in this case, is not whether Pennsylvania’s system of public education could be better,” Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, said ahead of the trial. “Any system can be improved. Every year, in fact, the General Assembly passes bills that are aimed at improving the system of public education. But imperfect is not unconstitutional.”

In court, Anthony Holtzman, a lawyer for Corman, said that the General Assembly has exceeded its constitutional mandate “by a wide margin.” He added that a court cannot “devise standards” for state needs without “crossing the line into the legislative arena.”

The plaintiffs have argued that the existing school funding system, which uses outdated data for its formula, is unconstitutional. They have not asked for a specific dollar amount in their lawsuit. Instead, they’ve requested the court rule that the General Assembly enact a new way to pay for public education.

Wolf urged the General Assembly to run all education funds through a modernized fair funding formula, and while the Legislature adopted the model, it only applies to new funding. Lawmakers also established the Level Up Initiative to help fund some of the poorest schools in Pennsylvania with the 2021-22 budget. 

Regardless of what the lower court decides, an appeal to the state Supreme Court is likely.

Witnesses for the plaintiffs, 29 in total, included state education officials, district administrators, and teachers who described deteriorating building conditions, staffing shortages, and limitations to ensure students have a quality education.

In a statement, Public Interest Law Center Executive Director Brenda Marrero said “substantial, recurring increases in education funding that are distributed equitably” could fix funding disparities.

“For the sake of the students and the future of the commonwealth, we must support quality public education that provides all children with the support they need to reach their potential,” she said.

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