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Court dismisses Pennsylvania school funding case; plaintiffs to appeal

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

Updated

Commonwealth Court has dismissed a school funding complaint brought by several school districts, parents, and groups alleging that Pennsylvania’s method of paying for education is unconstitutional and inequitable.

The ruling was another in a long line of Pennsylvania state court decisions affirming that school funding is strictly a function of the legislature and executive branch and therefore "nonjusticiable."

“We are disappointed that they didn’t take up what we considered to be a clear-cut constitutional issue," said Joseph Bard, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Rural and Small Schools, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. "But we will place our reliance on the Supreme Court to take a look at it.”

The plaintiffs in this case had hoped that the adoption of statewide academic requirements and graduation requirements provided a benchmark to determine what constitutes a "thorough and efficient" education, as mandated by the state constitution.

Since the last major ruling, the legislature had also ordered a "costing-out study" that set levels for what each school district in the state needed in order to provide students with an adequate education.

But these actions weren’t sufficient, wrote President Judge Dan Pellegrini on behalf of the seven-member panel. Although they "may establish annual legislative or executive benchmarks regarding student achievement and educational spending that may be used in determining funding levels as a matter of policy, they do not confer funding discretion upon this Court nor provide us with judicially manageable standards for determining whether the General Assembly has discharged its duty under the Constitution."

Oral arguments were held last month.

“Our argument was that the courts cannot give the legislature carte blanche – that it’s important they be held accountable,” said Michael Churchill, at the time. Churchill is an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Pennsylvania, which, along with the Education Law Center, is representing the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the state told the judges that the legislature’s only responsibility is to make sure that all districts have enough funds to stay open, which Churchill called a “19th-century” standard.

Gov. Wolf’s proposed 2016 budget includes more state money for education — and additional taxes to pay for the higher investment — and he has said his goal is to increase the state share of school funding, which is among the lowest in the country. A legislative Basic Education Funding Commission spent several months holding hearings around the state and is charged with proposing a new school funding formula by June.

In other states, including neighboring New Jersey, the courts have taken an active role in school funding. New Jersey has an identical clause in its state constitution affirming the right of each student to a "thorough and efficient" education. In a series of rulings, the Supreme Court ordered the state to invest more in the state’s poorest cities, known as the Abbott districts after the lead plaintiff in the litigation.

But Pennsylvania courts have consistently shied away from the issue. Pellegrini cited several prior cases decided in the 1990s, known as Danson, Marrero and Marrero II, as the basis for the ruling.

Those earlier decisions affirmed that the state constitution "does not confer an individual right upon each student to a particular level or quality or education," Pellegrini wrote. They also determined that "expenditures are not the exclusive yardstick of educational quality, or even constitutional quality."

Joseph Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District, also a plaintiff, said it was always a possibility that the lawsuit would be dismissed, so it’s crucial that all elected officials be involved in the fight for more school funding.

"We are probably one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to education, so we are trying to hold our legislature accountable," Bruni said.

Update, 4:45 p.m.: In a statement, lawyers from PILCOP and ELC expressed disappointment in the decision and noted that the court "only analyzed the alleged violation of the constitution’s education clause. It did not discuss the second claim in the case: violation of Pennsylvania’s equal protection clause."

“We believe the Supreme Court will set the law right and recognize that courts have a clear duty to address both claims," said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center. "Since the earlier cases were decided, the legislature has determined what students need to learn and the cost of providing that education, but they have failed to provide all students with basic resources they need to meet state standards. Pennsylvania courts are obligated to ensure that our constitution is followed. It’s not enough to just ‘keep the lights on’ in our schools, as the State has argued.”

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