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Judge hears impassioned closing arguments in Pennsylvania school funding case

The outside of the Pennsylvania Capitol building in Harrisburg, PA.

Attorneys for plaintiffs and defendants in Pennsylvania’s school funding trial had their final say before Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohen Jubelirer on Tuesday, July 26, 2022.

Kevin McCorry / WHYY

In closing arguments in Pennsylvania’s landmark school funding case Tuesday, a Commonwealth Court judge repeatedly pressed attorneys on both sides about how she or anyone will know when the state has met its constitutional obligation to support public education. 

During her exchanges with attorneys, Judge Renée Cohen Jubelirer asked whether the state’s constitution conferred a right to a high-quality education on every individual student. She also questioned whether a fair standard for the state would be for at least half of students to meet academic benchmarks, and at one point said looking solely at the system’s inputs was not necessarily the right approach.

Tuesday’s courtroom arguments followed a four-month trial that stretched from November to March. William Penn School District et al. vs Pennsylvania Department of Education et al. was originally filed in 2014 by six school districts, several parents and two statewide advocacy groups. It is the first in a long line of cases challenging the constitutionality of school funding in Pennsylvania to reach the trial stage.

The stakes in the case are especially high for districts like Philadelphia, the state’s largest. If Jubelirer, for instance, orders that all state basic education aid be funneled through a fair funding formula that is weighted more heavily to poorer districts, Philadelphia schools would gain $400 million a year, according to Uri Monson, the district’s chief financial officer. 

Attorneys for the plaintiffs said the current system’s inequities — including funding gaps between wealthy and poor districts that are among the biggest in the country — mean that Pennsylvania is not meeting its constitutional mandate to maintain a “thorough and efficient system of education.”

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney for the Public Interest Law Center who is representing the plaintiffs, called the way the state funds schools “inadequate, inequitable, and illogical,” saying that it created rich and poor districts, as well as huge achievement disparities. “We’re not looking for perfectionism but reasonableness,” Urevick-Ackelsberg told Jubelirer. 

But lawyers for Republican legislative leaders, who are the only state officials actively defending the current system, say that districts are already providing the “basic” level of education required by the state constitution, such as safe buildings and properly credential teachers. In addition, they said legislators are responsible for the structure of the school funding system, not judges. 

“This court would have to become a super school board to determine at what level schools are meeting constitutional requirements,” said attorney Thomas DeCesar, who is representing House Republican State Senate Jake Corman. 

The losing side is likely to appeal Jubelirer’s ruling to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The basis of the trial itself was the subject of debate between Jubelirer and one of the attorneys. 

At one point, DeCesar said GOP legislative leaders believe that when the 1873 constitution was revised in 1967 to add the words “to meet the needs of the Commonwealth,” it essentially gave the General Assembly power to determine what those needs are, in education and otherwise. 

“Then why did we have a trial?” Jubelirer responded. “There is no reason to have a trial about educational funding if the answer to the question is: As long as the legislature believes its accomplishing its goals, it’s up to them.”

Plaintiffs’ attorneys said at least a majority of students should reach proficiency based on state standards, among other goals, and that a constitutional system would give all students the chance to thrive academically and develop civic responsibility. Citing low proficiency rates in math and reading by a majority of Pennsylvania’s students, they also said that educational outcomes should be considered by the court in determining whether the constitutional standard is being met. 

Respondents’ attorneys vociferously disagreed. “Picking an outcome level will require the court to enter into the policy arena,” DeCesar said. 

But Jubelirer pushed back on this argument, saying, “Just looking at the inputs isn’t going to tell you if the system is meeting its goals.” 

Separately, Jubelirer asked whether the state’s $850 million increase for education in next year’s budget, weighted considerably toward 100 low-wealth districts, would resolve the issue. Urevick-Ackelsberg replied that an increase in funding for one year in the current system would not make up for the “constitutional defect” caused by decades of underfunding high-needs, low-wealth school districts.

Jubelirer could take several months to issue her ruling. At one point, she apologized for her persistent questioning and said, in exchanges with both sides, that she was playing the “devil’s advocate.”

“Sorry to be nitpicky, but every word counts when you’re writing an order,” she said. 

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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