Lawsuit over Pa. school funding goes to trial, witness testimony begins next week

‘This case isn’t about numbers. It’s a case about people,’ an attorney for the plaintiffs argued

By: - November 12, 2021 4:46 pm
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 by Marley Parish)

Opening statements in the trial that could change how Pennsylvania pays for public education across its 500 school districts began Friday, with remarks centered on the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to maintain a “thorough and efficient system.”

The case, initially dismissed by the Commonwealth Court in 2015 and revived by the state Supreme Court in 2017, pits six school districts, a group of parents, the state conference of the NAACP, and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, against Gov. Tom Wolf, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, the Department of Education, Education Secretary Noe Ortega, and the State Board of Education.

“This case isn’t about numbers. It’s a case about people,” Katrina Robson, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in Commonwealth Court before Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer. “It’s about children struggling to overcome circumstances that they can’t control.”

The trial, expected to last into January, revolves around the state’s education funding formula, which uses population numbers from the early 1990s to allocate money to schools across the state.

Although Pennsylvania adopted a modernized version for appropriations in 2016, using student poverty percentage, household income, and districts’ capacity to raise local revenues, it only applies to new funding.

“It doesn’t calculate how big the pie should be,” Robson said of the funding formula. “It just allocates the pie amongst the districts.”

The plaintiffs, represented by the Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center, and the Los Angeles-based private law firm O’Melveny & Myers, claim that the Legislature maintains an inequitable school funding system.

Using expert witnesses, state testing data, and graduation rates, attorneys for the plaintiffs will argue that the way the General Assembly funds schools discriminates against students in districts with low incomes and property values. They’ve argued that the gap between what low-wealth school districts have and what they need is at least $4.6 billion.

“The cost of failing to support a thorough and efficient system of education, it’s not measured in statistics,” Robson said. “It’s not measured in dollars and cents. It’s measured in the lives of children in Pennsylvania.”

VIDEO: On first day of funding trial, rally-goers call on Pa. for equitable school funding

Although parties in the case will disagree “about a great many things,” Robson said she thinks everyone involved recognizes that public education is key to ensuring children become active adults and function as citizens in a “self-governing democracy.”

The plaintiffs’ lawsuit does not request a specific dollar amount. But it asks the court to rule the school funding system unconstitutional and requests that the General Assembly create a new, “well-funded” school funding system.

Though he’s a defendant in the case, Wolf agrees with the plaintiffs that funding disparities affect student success. He’s called on the Legislature to run all education funds through the modernized fair-funding formula. Robson used statements made by Wolf to illustrate that plea in court Friday.

Christopher Lewis, who represents Wolf, Ortega, and the Department of Education, gave an overview of the executive branch’s role within the education system, describing them as “policymakers with oversight responsibility for the distribution of both state and federal funds for education.” 

“The General Assembly has created the system of public education, and the executive respondents play important roles in administering that system,” Lewis said. “In this trial, your honor, the executive respondents view their role as assisting the court in understanding the statutory, regulatory, and policy rationales that frame Pennsylvania’s education system.”

Lewis noted that school appropriations have “increased substantially” over the last six years. He added that Wolf, who staked his legacy on education, and his administration have made school funding a top priority. Lewis cited an increase from $10.6 billion in the 2014-15 budget year to more than $13.9 billion in 2021-22. 

“These are significant commitments to public education, but these significant commitments still fall short of the levels of funding requested by the governor,” Lewis said.

In his opening statement, Patrick Northen, a lawyer for Cutler, said the Republican-controlled Legislature has worked in “good faith” to invest in education and uphold its constitutional obligation to a “thorough and efficient” public system. The education clause in the foundational document, he noted, does not contain the word “uniform.”

“This is not a case about whether the system of public education in Pennsylvania is perfect or whether improvements could be made,” Northen said. “It’s not about whether there are any changes to the system that the petitioners, or respectfully even this court, would implement if they ran the government; nor … is it about whether education opportunities are uniform throughout all school districts or among all subgroups of students.”

Northen noted steps the Legislature has taken to address school funding, including a forthcoming funding formula for special education funds and free public education and childhood learning programs.

“School achievement can be influenced by many factors that are outside the control of the public school system,” Northen said, listing parental involvement, housing, healthcare, nutrition, as well as students’ natural intelligence, work ethic, and interest in school. “As courts in other states have recognized, education clauses in state constitutions cannot be construed to make public school systems constitutionally required to cure every societal ill or to overcome every family or personal disadvantage that students bring with them to school.” 

For a court to decide otherwise would mean that the education clause would mandate that the General Assembly “eliminate the impact of poverty on society,” Northen said.

“That’s asking far too much of the 26 words in Article 3, Section 14 [of the state constitution],” he said.

He added: “It’s a very slippery slope the petitioners want to take you down — smaller class sizes, expanded preschool programs, more school counselors, reading specialists, ESL support, school psychologists, etc. There’s a lot of things schools would like to have, but they aren’t mentioned anywhere in the constitution.” 

Anthony Holtzman, who represents Corman, said that the General Assembly is exceeding the constitutional minimum “by a wide margin” — adding that a court cannot “devise standards” for the commonwealth’s needs without “crossing the line into the legislative arena.”

Targeting the six school districts part of the lawsuit, Holtzman listed a series of specialized courses taught across the schools, including public speaking, foreign language, and Advanced Placement classes. Growth scores, teacher evaluations, and graduation rates are better measures for student success, he added.

“Education is one thing your honor, and health and social services are another,” Holtzman said.

Attorneys for the legislative defendants also noted that Wolf applauded the most recent budget’s investment in public education, arguing that Pennsylvania’s system is “quite a good one,” Northen said.

The trial, which is not a jury trial, will continue next week, with witnesses beginning to testify on Monday.

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