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Wolf asks court to expedite school funding lawsuit; GOP leaders reiterate opposition

The governor dropped his prior objections.

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

Gov. Wolf filed a brief Wednesday asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to speed up its consideration of the lawsuit seeking to overhaul the state’s current system for funding education, abandoning his prior objections.

Legislative leaders, meanwhile, doubled down on their arguments against the plaintiff’s claims and again urged its dismissal.

Wolf, a Democrat, initially opposed the suit largely on the grounds that school funding is a legislative and executive responsibility, not a matter for the courts. In seeking at first to dismiss the case, his attorneys had also argued that preservation of local control over education was a "constitutionally reasonable basis" for maintaining an inadequate funding system, even if it results in "widespread deprivations in economically disadvantaged districts of the resources necessary to attain a constitutionally adequate education."

Wolf’s new brief concluded that the high court’s most recent ruling in the case, in September, "foreclosed" those arguments and so they were being abandoned. It asked the court to "enter an order setting a deadline" to "move this matter toward a resolution." Wolf’s brief reiterated his political commitment to ensuring that every child, regardless of zip code, has access to a high-quality education.

The Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center first filed the lawsuit in 2014 on behalf of five school districts and six individual parents. It says that Pennsylvania’s system violates both the equal protection clause and a mandate in the Pennsylvania constitution that each child is entitled to a "thorough and efficient" system of education.

The gaps between wealthy and low-income districts in Pennsylvania are among the widest in the country.

In its September decision, the Supreme Court remanded the case to Commonwealth Court for argument on the merits – the first time that a school funding lawsuit has gotten this far in Pennsylvania.

Commonwealth Court has scheduled oral arguments on preliminary objections for the first week of March in Philadelphia.

The attorneys who brought the case were jubilant at the governor’s new position.

"By opposing further delay, the governor acknowledges that our children need and deserve prompt justice to remedy the inequity and inadequacy of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system," said Maura McInerney, legal director of the Education Law Center.

A brief filed on behalf of Senate president Joseph Scarnati argued that the plaintiffs had failed to show any connection between how much schools spend and their students’ educational results and confused "opportunity for outcomes."

"Notably absent … are any allegations of how the alleged funding shortfall caused any given school district to cut or otherwise fail to provide any given constitutionally-requisite educational opportunity," Scarnati’s brief said. "… If a student failed to score as proficient on a standardized test, it does not necessarily mean that he did not receive the constitutionally requisite opportunities to obtain an adequate education."

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, of the Public Interest Law Center, rejected this position.

"Anyone who doubts that low-wealth schools and their students are suffering from this state’s lack of investment needs only to visit one," he said. "The harm caused is obvious: crumbling buildings, overcrowded classes, and a lack of technology. … Every day the legislature delays through its legal objections is a day in which hundreds of thousands of students … remain in grossly underfunded schools."

House Speaker Mike Turzai emphasized in his brief that local control of education justifies spending disparities. He mentioned as important "the desire of many Pennsylvanians to see their tax dollars used to benefit their own local schools, rather than redistributed throughout the Commonwealth."

The plaintiffs’ equal protection claim should be dismissed "because education, while undoubtedly important from a societal perspective, is not recognized as a ‘fundamental right’ in Pennsylvania and the Commonwealth’s system for funding public education is plainly supported by the rational basis of preserving local control over public schools," Turzai said.