Historic Pa. public school funding lawsuit finally heading to trial this fall

    The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg (Capital-Star file)

    (This story was updated with new information following an afternoon press conference on Friday, 4/2/21. A previous version also referred to Lincoln Highway as the road separating Philadelphia from its suburbs; that was updated to City Avenue, the name for a local portion of that road.)

    Nothing more than four lanes of traffic separate one of Pennsylvania’s wealthiest school districts from one of its poorest.

    Sitting north of City Avenue, which demarcates northwestern Philadelphia from its suburbs, is Lower Merion School District. Students at its flagship high school enjoy a college-style lecture hall, a greenhouse, and state-of-the-art athletics and theater facilities, thanks to a $106 million renovation that started in 2004.

    Travel south across Lincoln Highway and you’ll find yourself in the School District of Philadelphia.  

    The state’s largest public school district is home to students such as Skylar Armstrong. By the time he graduated from high school in 2019, Armstrong had spent more than a decade in schools that didn’t employ librarians, where classrooms had leaky roofs and got “hot like ovens” during summer months, he recounted during a press conference Friday.

    Education reform advocates say the reason for these disparities is simple: the state does not provide enough money to its public schools to ensure that students in poor districts have adequate access to educators, course offerings and facilities.

    Since 2014, that argument has been at the crux of a landmark lawsuit that aims to reshape public school funding in Pennsylvania. 

    Thanks to an order that a Commonwealth Court judge issued Thursday, the case is finally set to go to trial.

    Starting tentatively on Sept. 9, a group of school districts, parents, and educational advocates from across the state will have the chance to prove in court the argument that they’ve been litigating for more than six years: that Pennsylvania’s public school funding laws favor wealthy districts, depriving students in poor ones their constitutional right to a quality education. 

    Their goal is to have the Commonwealth Court rule that the state’s current funding system is unconstitutional and order the Legislature to fix it. 

    “This trial will finally hold our General Assembly accountable to the schoolchildren of Pennsylvania for their failure to provide every child in every zip code with a quality education,” Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center, said at a Friday press conference. “We will show that inadequate state funding has deeply harmed our children living in low wealth school districts for decades.”

    The plaintiffs are being represented by the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center, two non-profit law and advocacy organizations.

    The attorneys bringing the case don’t have a specific remedy in mind. 

    But they say that they don’t believe it’s possible to fix funding disparities – and to ensure that all students have access to an adequate education – without dramatically increasing the level of state funding that Pennsylvania provides to its 500 public school districts each year. 

    “We can’t just split the pie differently,” Kristina Moon, staff attorney at the Education Law Center, told the Capital-Star last week. ”There is no way to solve the level of defunding we have now. We need an increase and a fix.”

    One expert analysis commissioned by the plaintiffs estimates that it could take an additional $4.6 billion each year to ensure adequate funding statewide. 

    The case was first filed in 2014 and has been stuck in appellate proceedings ever since. Judges have heard oral arguments from each side, but have never scheduled a formal trial date. 

    The Commonwealth Court initially dismissed the suit in 2015, saying that school funding was a legislative matter that the courts had no grounds to dictate.

    But the state Supreme Court, which was newly populated that year with a majority of justices elected as Democrats, remanded the case to the Commonwealth Court in 2017, requiring the lower panel to consider it again. 

    Former Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, and ex-House Speaker Mike Turzai, R-Allegheny, who were named as plaintiffs in their capacity as leaders of the General Assembly, spent the final years of their legislative careers seeking to have the case dismissed. 

    The case was tentatively scheduled to go to trial last summer, but was delayed so each side would have more time to prepare their courtroom arguments.