Funding the 500: A landmark school funding case put K-12 spending on trial
What comes next in the years-long legal battle over how Pennsylvania funds public education?
Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District. Landsdowne, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2023. (Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
Penn Wood High School in the William Penn School District. Landsdowne, Pennsylvania on June 15, 2023. (Amanda Berg for the Capital-Star)
Jennifer Hoff had just moved into a house in Delaware County. It was 1997. Eight months pregnant with twins, she was standing in her front yard, looking at her new home, when a neighbor — now a friend — welcomed her to Lansdowne.
At the time, Hoff knew her kids would eventually get a public education in the William Penn School District, so she began attending board meetings after giving birth. She wasn’t willing to accept that “awful” was the status quo — a brush-off comment — for her community’s public schools.
“I had to do something and find out, be part of the solution and not the problem,” she said. “And so, I ran for school board.”
December will mark 16 years since Hoff first joined the board of directors, and she’s still working to create a better education system — not just in her district but statewide. Her next four-year term, however, could be her last, assuming lawmakers adhere to a Commonwealth Court directive by developing a funding model that ensures a “thorough and efficient” education system.
In February, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer declared the existing state funding system unconstitutional in a 786-page ruling after a four-month trial in a landmark case filed in 2014.
For the six school districts, two associations, and the group of parents included in the case, the ruling — which orders lawmakers and the governor to collaborate with educators to “make the constitutional promise a reality” — came as a victory. It was “an earthquake,” as Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, put it after the decision came down.
Throughout the trial, attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center, and O’Melveny & Myers, a law firm that dedicated a pro bono team to the case, argued that the current funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, has resulted in disparities between low-income and wealthy districts, arguing that schools are underfunded by at least $4.6 billion.
And the consequences last far beyond a graduation date.
“You rely on a good education to get a good job, to move your family, to have a nicer life than your family before,” Hoff said. “And by not educating folks and by funding on property taxes, you keep people where they are.”
Cohn Jubelirer concurred with the petitioners, writing that students living in poor school districts with low property values “are deprived of the same opportunities and resources” as those living in wealthy school districts with high property values. The disparity, she added, “is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective.”
“All witnesses agree that every child can learn,” she concluded in her decision. “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth.”
With budget negotiations playing out this month between Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the politically divided General Assembly, advocates and educators expect a significant downpayment on education, and they’re waiting to see how officials begin to fix the existing funding system while making workforce investments amid a worsening educator staffing crisis across 500 public school districts. But bringing the funding system into constitutional compliance is likely a multi-step — and multi-year — process, lasting far beyond the June 30 budget deadline.
Legislative Republicans could still file an appeal. However, advocates who have been with the case from the beginning — and working on fair education funding decades before its filing — have no plans to give up on pushing for a new system.
“All of us must be in this for the long haul,” Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, told the Capital-Star. “This is about the future of our children, the future of our communities, and the future of our state.”
A case years in the making
Michael Churchill was working in his office at the Philadelphia-based Public Interest Law Center, where he serves as of counsel, or a special lawyer, when the Commonwealth Court decision came in February.
It was late in the day, and “we all just jumped up,” Churchill, a chief architect of the case, told the Capital-Star.
The legal victory is a career highlight for 83-year-old Churchill, who joined the Public Interest Law Center in 1976 and has dedicated most of his life to civil rights issues.
As the son of a city planner father, Churchill grew up discussing how the government could “serve people rather than serve the people who are in government.” His wife, who was a Philadelphia public school teacher, motivated his interest in education and equity.
“I wanted to make sure that what was available to some was available to all,” he said, explaining his more than 30-year history of litigating education cases in Pennsylvania.
According to Urevick-Ackelsberg, Churchill is the reason why Pennsylvania’s school funding case went to trial.
“None of it would have happened without him,” Urevick-Ackelsberg told reporters in February.
In 1997, the Public Interest Law Center partnered with Philadelphia and its public school system to file a case — Marrero v. Commonwealth — that challenged the state’s funding system, arguing that Pennsylvania failed to provide a constitutionally required “thorough and efficient” education.
The case never made it to trial, but Churchill never gave up, working behind the scenes and developing a legal strategy to challenge how Pennsylvania funds its public schools while still taking on other civil rights cases.
The “real genesis” for the 2014 case, Churchill said, stemmed from widely-debated $1 billion budget cuts under former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011.
After that, the Public Interest Law Center was “bombarded with attention” from parents and educators who wanted to take legal action, Churchill said. So, attorneys took it on, teaming up with the Education Law Center to develop a plan.
Over roughly six months, the centers evaluated and found who was willing to sue the Department of Education, eventually landing on six schools, the Pennsylvania NAACP, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and a group of parents representing rural and urban parts of Pennsylvania.
“I think many districts were quite reluctant,” Churchill said, describing a fear of possible retaliation from joining the lawsuit, “which nobody had been part of before.”
Pennsylvania uses two formulas to determine how much its public schools receive annually. Most of the state’s basic education dollars run through a formula that uses a “hold harmless” approach to ensure schools don’t lose funding even if enrollment has declined, calculating appropriations using enrollment numbers from the 1990s.
Pennsylvania adopted a new method in 2016 that directs funds based on enrollment numbers, English learners, poverty levels, and median household income. But the fair funding formula only applies to new funding, meaning that the aid schools receive doesn’t meet their needs.
The petitioners didn’t ask for a specific dollar amount for the state to allocate toward K-12 education, but instead asked the court to declare the current model unconstitutional, using witness testimony, state testing data, and graduation rates to showcase the disparities created by the current system.
Every decision leaves ‘collateral damage’ somewhere else
For the districts represented in the case, joining was their best option.
It was either sign on to the lawsuit or continue making decisions that came with “collateral damage,” as Shenandoah Valley School District Superintendent Brian Waite said during the trial.
Waite, who has led the district in rural Schuylkill County since 2016, is regularly faced with decisions about shifting resources, which often create other challenges.
From having to reassign a Title I specialist helping elementary kids to the district’s kindergarten program, which had class sizes of more than 30, and having educators in at least 10 classes teach two subjects at the same time — every allocation takes away from something else, whether it be staffing or delaying another infrastructure project.
And while the district has used federal pandemic relief funds to address needs and considered applying for grant funding, administrators always need a contingency plan for when those financial boosts run out, he said.
“Every day, we are working to try and figure out what we can do with the current staffing we have and how we can make the most of the staff and minimize the collateral damage on the fewest number of kids,” Waite told the Capital-Star.
When Greater Johnstown School District Superintendent Amy Arcurio took the stand, she described having to make “awful” decisions about allocating resources, picking whether to renovate a deteriorating building for student and staff safety or close it altogether.
After it shut down the building, the district had to decide how to maximize space elsewhere, converting storage closets into classrooms. With 1,200 students at its elementary school, most of whom need one-on-one attention or small-group work, and only two reading specialists, which students get access? Who on staff takes on more?
The funding case, Arcurio added, wasn’t just about the six school districts getting ahead. They might have signed up to do the work, but a constitutional funding system will benefit kids statewide.
“I don’t regret it,” Hoff, who was school board president, when the William Penn School District joined the case. “These communities, these families, these young people are worth fighting for, and they know we’re fighting for them.”
Addressing a broken funding system
Bringing the funding system into constitutional compliance, McInerney said, requires lawmakers to address adequacy and equity.
To her, that means examining all education spending: K-12, career and technical education, and early childhood education. It also requires solutions to address the educator staffing crisis, ensure safe facilities, and equip schools with textbooks, classroom supplies, and technology.
“[In] our school funding case, we disclosed that children who are living in poverty have more significant educational needs,” McInerney said. “They don’t need less; they need more support.”
School funding cases in other states — such as Illinois — resulted in new formulas and adequacy targets, which calculate the cost to educate students within a district based on cost factors outlined in an evidence-based funding formula, to remedy a broken system.
“That’s the way other states have addressed this issue by ensuring that those communities are not taxing themselves at four times the rate, but ensuring that there’s adequate state funding to meet the needs of the children they are serving,” McInerney said.
An appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court is still a possibility, though Shapiro previously said that Republican leaders privately indicated that they won’t challenge the Commonwealth Court decision.
If the ruling stands, lawmakers have said addressing the problem will require a system overhaul, with proposals to address educator staffing shortages already circulating in Harrisburg.
“It will take all of us — Republicans and Democrats; teachers and administrators; students and families; advocates and community leaders,” Shapiro said of fixing the funding model during his budget address. “It will take all of our ideas for not just how many dollars we set aside from the state for public education but how we drive those dollars out to local districts adequately and equitably.”
The governor’s $44.4 billion budget proposal calls for a $1 billion boost for Pennsylvania schools. Facing criticism for not including new “Level Up” funding for the 100 poorest districts, Shapiro — who thinks completely fixing the funding model will take multiple steps — has said the next budget will further increase education spending and drive out dollars “in an equitable fashion.”
Republicans, however, aren’t totally on board with the governor’s suggested spending plan.
Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said each one of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts has a different definition for what’s fair, adding that Senate Republicans want to prioritize school infrastructure projects and finding ways to repurpose school buildings that have closed in rural areas with declining population numbers.
“I think we’re always looking for ways to figure out how to drive those dollars out more correctly,” Pittman told reporters. “But I also think that we need to make it clear that it has to also include parental empowerment, parental engagement. That is absolutely critical to us.”
He added that the Commonwealth Court decision “didn’t distinguish between public and private education.”
“It distinguished educational opportunities,” Pittman said. “And it also made reference to the fact that providing equal education doesn’t always have to translate into more funding.”
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