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Commonwealth Court hears arguments in school funding case

The next step would be a trial on the merits. Attorneys for legislative leaders would like to see the case thrown out.

pic of plaintiffs
Dale Mezzacappa

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

The long-running lawsuit seeking adequate and equitable school funding in Pennsylvania is entering its next phase after a hearing Wednesday before the Commonwealth Court.

photo of kenney budget Tom MacDonald / WHYY

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said afterward that they were confident that the judges would allow the case to move forward so they can present evidence at trial that the current funding system harms children and families in poor school districts where, despite often-high tax rates, schools lack the resources they need.

The question, they said, is whether arguments presented by attorneys for legislative leaders will introduce further delays into the three-year-old case.

“Every day this case is delayed, tens of thousands of students go another day, another month, another year, without the resources they need to meet state standards and flourish in the modern economy we have today,” said Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center, which is representing the plaintiffs along with the Education Law Center and the law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Maura McInerney, legal director of ELC, said that since the judges were concerned about the standard for review, “it’s an indication the case will move forward.”

The plaintiffs – six school districts, seven families, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP – say the state’s system of funding is unfair and unconstitutional, violating the provision to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education.

The plaintiffs make arguments on two fronts: One is adequacy, maintaining that Pennsylvania’s funding system denies districts the resources they need to help students meet state academic standards. The other is equity, arguing that the disparities among districts are so great that students’ rights are violated under the equal protection clause of the constitution.

Like most states, Pennsylvania uses a combination of state and local revenue to fund education. Now there is an overreliance on local property taxes, with just 37 percent of the total cost borne by the state. That has led to the widest disparities in spending among rich and poor districts in the country.

This is not the first school funding case brought in Pennsylvania, but it is the first that has gotten this far. Pennsylvania courts have consistently taken the position that school funding is a political matter best decided by the legislature.

The Commonwealth Court had previously dismissed the case on those grounds, but last fall the state Supreme Court overturned that decision and sent it back for trial.

Wednesday’s hearing, before a five-judge panel sitting in Philadelphia, was on preliminary objections to the litigation raised by Senate President Pro Tem Joseph Scarnati and Assembly Speaker Michael Turzai.

Turzai’s attorney, Patrick Northen, focused his argument on the “equal protection” clause, saying that education, while an important social good, is “not a fundamental right” under the constitution.

He said, however, that he expects the case to move forward on the grounds of adequacy.

The constitution says it is the legislature’s duty “to provide for the maintenance and support of an adequate system of education,” Northen said. “That is going to go forward.” In that phase, the legislature is eager to show how it has “fulfilled its obligation,” he said.

Northen and John Krill, representing Scarnati, also said the funding system should be maintained because it preserves local control of schools, an important constitutional value. They also sought to have the case rendered moot because of Act 35, a new funding formula adopted by the legislature two years ago.

The new formula is predictable, adjusted for enrollment fluctuations, and weighted for students with extra needs such as English language learners and those in poverty.

But Brad Elias, arguing for the plaintiffs, pointed out that the formula is being applied to just 2 percent of all education spending in the state.

“Adequacy is not addressed by the Basic Education Funding Formula,” he said. “We know that Act 35 will not address the disparities that exist today.”

“What you’re saying is that they’re rearranging the deck chairs, but what you need is a bigger boat,” interjected Judge Michael Wojcik.

“I couldn’t have said it better myself,” Elias responded.

Elias also pointed out that making the state funding formula more equitable does not reduce local control. In fact, he said, poor districts have “limits on local control [due to] paucity of resources.” In its September ruling, the Supreme Court observed that making the state funding formula more equitable “does not in any way dictate that local control must be reduced.”

Krill, Scarnati’s attorney, also suggested that the plaintiffs had not shown “causation,” or a relationship between resources and student achievement.

Gov. Wolf had initially also filed objections to the case, based largely on executive prerogative, but he mostly dropped those objections. He has emphasized efforts he has made to increase basic education aid and the state share of school funding.

At the press conference after the hearing, ELC’s McInerney elaborated on the local control argument. “It’s illusory,” she said. “A local jurisdiction can tax itself at four times the rate of others and not have sufficient funds to provide for their students.”

The acting superintendent of the Johnstown school district, Michael Vuckovich, said he inherited a $4.5 million deficit and was forced to close a school, increase class size, eliminate afterschool programming, and lay off teachers.

“The kids who need the most get the least in our current system. Shame on us for not doing something to advocate for more. If not us, who? I think the responsibility is on us as leaders and as citizens to do more for our community.”

He said that nearly 50 percent of his students live in poverty, and because of the budget cuts, “we are unable to provide the much-needed support they deserve to get to adequate levels and reach proficiency standards.”

Jamella and Bryant Miller, who have two children in the William Penn School District, said that their older daughter went to well-funded schools in the Upper Moreland District in Montgomery County. But when they moved to William Penn, said Jamella, “We’ve seen this vast difference across wealthy districts vs. non-wealthy. If you can’t afford to stay in a place that has a good school district … we moved to an area more to our economic speed, and over the years we’ve seen how the schools begin to crumble around us.”

She said there were leaks in a classroom coat closet so that coats were soaked every time it rained. Her son, a 2nd grader, comes home with worksheets because they don’t have textbooks.

“Yet, taxes are high,” she said. “Our students don’t get books, computers, they have walls crumbling around them. … We pay more because we’re in a failing district, and that’s unfair.”

After the hearing, plaintiff lawyer Elias said that the “worst-case scenario” from the advocates’ point of view would be for the court to order the parties to filed revised briefs in response to some of the arguments made by attorneys for the legislative leaders. That would just delay the case further, he said.

The judges did not set a timetable for when they might rule and how quickly the case would proceed.

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