This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
UPDATED 12:15 p.m. with quote from Turzai spokesman
Dismissing most objections raised by legislative leaders, Commonwealth Court ruled Monday that a landmark legal case with the potential to overturn Pennsylvania’s system for funding education can proceed.
The court rejected arguments from State Senate President Pro-tem Joseph Scarnati and Assembly Speaker Mike Turzai that the petitioners – several school districts, individual parents, and state organizations – had failed to prove that the current system harms students.
Pennsylvania’s school funding system, which is heavily reliant on local property taxes, has some of the widest gaps in spending among districts of any state. In the case, called William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, plaintiffs argue that students are being deprived of their right to a “thorough and efficient” education as described in the state constitution.
The Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center, which represent the plaintiffs, hailed the ruling.
“This is a clear victory for public school students across the commonwealth,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center. “There is no doubt that Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren continue to suffer extraordinary harm due to severe underfunding and gross inequalities. We look forward to proving our case at trial.”
In his objections, Turzai argued that education is not a fundamental constitutional right. The court overruled that objection, but allowed discovery to continue on that issue.
“The legislature seeks to argue that education is not an important right,” said attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center. “They make that argument in the face of everything families know to be true. In fact, the state constitution singles out education so that it cannot be treated just as any other service.”
Scarnati argued that the case is moot because the legislature adopted a new education funding formula in 2016 that is weighted for various student needs, taking into account factors such as the number of students in a district who live in poverty and a district’s taxing capacity. For nearly a quarter-century, the state had no real formula for distributing education aid.
The court said that it would consider arguments relating to the mootness claim.
Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Republicans, issued the following statement:
“We are reviewing the lawsuit but are prepared to proceed … both in the Court and in the state budget. A new and fair Basic Education Funding Formula has been in place and praised by both rural and urban school districts, school advocates, Republicans and Democrats – including Governor Wolf. The state formula takes into account local choices, local decisions as well as local demographics. While we believe the original unanimous opinion of the Commonwealth Court that the lawsuit was “non-justiciable,” the new formula really makes the lawsuit moot.
The new formula is only applied to a small fraction of the state aid that is doled out to districts. For instance, if all the basic education aid were distributed through the 2016 formula, Philadelphia would receive $337 million more a year from the state. Other poor urban districts would also get significantly more money – Reading would receive $107 million more, Allentown $72 million more and Harrisburg $37 million more.
“Anyone who doubts that low-wealth schools and their students continue to suffer from this state’s lack of investment needs only to visit one,” said Churchill. “The harm caused is obvious: crumbling buildings, overcrowded classes, and a lack of technology that does not befit the dignity of the children of this commonwealth. It seems like the only people who can’t see that are in the legislature.”
Previous lawsuits seeking to overturn the state’s funding system, filed as far back as the early 1990s, have been dismissed, mostly on the grounds that school funding is a legislative prerogative and not subject to judicial interference. Such cases have been filed in most states, and in some of them, including neighboring New Jersey, the courts have been aggressive in ordering change.
Six school districts (but not Philadelphia’s) are among the plaintiffs – William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley. Philadelphia parents are among the six families who joined the suits. The organizations are the Pennsylvania Association of Rural & Small Schools, which brought its own case unsuccessfully more than a quarter-century ago, and the NAACP of Pennsylvania.
The state Supreme Court, in a departure from rulings in the previous Pennsylvania cases, ruled last fall that this case could proceed on the merits and remanded it to Commonwealth Court for a full trial.