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Attorneys for districts, parents ask judges to hear education funding case

Photo: Kevin McCorry/WHYY

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Judges must order Pennsylvania’s governor and legislature to guarantee the constitutional right of every student to a "thorough and efficient" education, attorneys told a Commonwealth Court panel Wednesday.

The plaintiffs in the case are six school districts, parents from five districts (including Philadelphia), the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. They are represented by attorneys from two advocacy groups — the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP).

Circumstances have changed significantly since Pennsylvania courts declined to get involved in school funding cases brought in the 1990s, attorneys told the judges. Specifically, they said that the legislature has now established the benchmarks for a "thorough and efficient" education through state standards and requirements that students pass Keystone exams in several subjects in order to graduate.

The plaintiffs contend that through these requirements, the legislature has defined a "thorough and efficient" education and the courts are constitutionally obligated to make sure that each district has the means to provide it.

"Our argument was that the courts cannot give the legislature carte blanche, that it’s important they be held accountable," said Michael Churchill, an attorney with PILCOP, which is representing the plaintiffs.

Background

This is not the first time that advocates, including PILCOP, have sought court intervention in school funding in Pennsylvania. PARSS, which at the time represented more than 120 of the state’s 500 districts, filed a lawsuit in 1991 seeking an overhaul of the state funding system. It argued that its most impoverished districts did not have enough funds to provide their students with an adequate education.

Up to now, the courts have consistently ruled that the constitutional definition of a "thorough and efficient" education is up to the legislature to determine.

According to Bruce Ledewitz, a Pennsylvania constitutional law expert and professor at Duquesne University Law School, one objection to ruling on the constitution is that what constitutes a "thorough and efficient" public education is not fixed.

"To say that some portion or some curriculum is constitutionally required would create a great deal of rigidity in public school education," said Ledewitz.

But, he said, Pennsylvania’s courts have ruled on funding for other public services. "I don’t know why courts have not required funding levels that are more nearly equal," he said.

He used the example of court funding. "Judges do hear cases about court funding, because they’re judges and not schoolchildren."

State officials have petitioned the court to dismiss the case on the same grounds this time around.

The case

Churchill, with PILCOP and the other advocates, hope this case will be different.
"Before, the court had no way to benchmark," said Maura McInerney of ELC.

Now they do, she said – because of the academic standards and a costing-out study ordered by the legislature in 2006 to determine how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students.

At the heart of the case, Churchill said, is that the court "did not need to overrule any prior rulings because of the changes in the last 16 years."

Asked what exact remedy they are seeking, Churchill said: "At this stage, a declaration that the current system does not meet constitutional standards. We would expect the court to ask the legislature and the executive to submit a plan saying what they would do in response" and "describing a method for determining ‘adequacy.’"

Attorneys for the legislature, following arguments made in the earlier cases, asserted that lawmakers’ only responsibility under the constitution is to make sure that each district has enough funding to open school doors.

Almost all states have had lawsuits around inequity and inadequacy in school funding. In 38 of them, the courts have gotten involved.

Attorneys for the governor, while still arguing for dismissal of the case and a political solution to the funding issue, took a slightly different approach. In a statement issued by his office, Gov. Wolf, who has proposed spending hundreds of millions more in state money on education, noted that the case began before he took office.

"It also must be emphasized that the attorney general’s motion should not be interpreted as satisfaction by the governor with the policy choices that have been made by the legislature over the years relating to public school funding," the statement said.

"That is why Gov. Wolf has proposed a historic investment in education. His main priority is investing in our classrooms to help our children succeed at higher levels in order to lay the foundation for a stronger middle class."

Attorneys from ELC and PILCOP said it could take the panel of judges four to five months to decide whether they will hear the case.

The decision is expected to prompt appeals.

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