Pa. court sides with plaintiffs in K-12 school funding case

‘It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth,’ the order states

By: and - February 7, 2023 5:17 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).

(*This story was updated at 5:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, to include additional reporting.)

A Pennsylvania judge has declared the state’s system to pay for K-12 public schools unconstitutional, marking a victory for plaintiffs in a landmark trial to reform education funding.

In an order filed Tuesday, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer said that the General Assembly has failed to uphold its constitutional obligation to provide all children a “thorough and efficient” education system by depriving students in school districts with low property values and incomes of the same resources and opportunities of children in wealthier ones.

“It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth,” Cohn Jubelirer wrote in a nearly 800-page ruling.

The plaintiffs — six school districts, four parents, and two statewide organizations — did not request a specific dollar amount in the case against former Gov. Tom Wolf, state education officials, and legislative Republican leaders.

Instead, they asked the court to rule that the General Assembly enact a new way to pay for public education, a system the Legislature has grappled with in the past.

Pennsylvania passed the Fair Funding Formula in 2016, which decides financial allocations across the state’s 500 school districts. The new system only applies to new funds and uses outdated population numbers. In practice, this hurts schools in the eastern half of the state, which are growing, and keeps money in western school districts, which are shrinking.

In the order, Cohn Jubelirer does not outline how the Legislature should distribute education funding, saying the court is in “uncharted territory with this landmark case.”

The statewide appellate court initially dismissed the case, filed by the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center, and international law firm O’Melveny & Myers, in 2014. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court revived the case in 2017, and a four-month-long trial concluded in March 2022.

“The court recognized that our schools require adequate funding to meet our constitutional mandate,” the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center said in a joint statement. “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.”

During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs argued that current state appropriations are insufficient in areas with lower property values and income. Using testimony from educators and former state education officials, they outlined how deteriorating buildings and overcrowded classrooms have affected students — using lower test scores as proof — compared to those in better-funded districts.

Meanwhile, lawyers for Republican legislative leaders included in the case argued that the General Assembly ultimately gets to decide education funding decisions, saying that if voters are unhappy, they can remedy the issue at the ballot box. They also cited increased education spending under Wolf’s administration and questioned whether districts spend money effectively — noting schools that cut staff rather than consolidate athletic programs or purchase cheaper technology.

Jennifer Hoff was the school board president of the William Penn School District when it joined the suit in 2014. She told the Capital-Star that the news of the decision brought tears to her eyes after nearly nine years of litigation and appeals.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Hoff, who still serves as a school board member and chairs the budget and finance committee, said.

William Penn comprises six small and mostly Black boroughs in an inner ring suburb of Philadelphia. Its superintendent, former superintendent, teachers, and students testified in the trial about aging facilities and poor educational outcomes for students.

On the prospect of a further appeal by the General Assembly, Hoff said further delaying an equitable school funding system would be an injustice to students.

“It can be done,” Hoff said. “The courts say it has to be done. No more excuses. We just have to figure it out.”

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Marley Parish

Marley Parish covered the Senate for the Capital-Star.

Peter Hall
Peter Hall

Peter Hall has been a journalist in Pennsylvania and New Jersey for more than 20 years, most recently covering criminal justice and legal affairs for The Morning Call in Allentown. His career at local newspapers and legal business publications has taken him from school board meetings to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and many points of interest between. He earned a degree in journalism from Susquehanna University.