EDUCATION FUNDING LAWSUIT
In 2014, six Pennsylvania school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA State Conference, and a group of public school parents filed suit in Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court against state legislative leaders, state education officials, and the governor for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education. The school districts are: William Penn, Greater Johnstown, Lancaster, Panther Valley, Shenandoah Valley, and Wilkes-Barre Area.
On February 7, 2023, the court ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system was unconstitutional.
On June 21, 2023, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer again ruled in favor of petitioners in Pennsylvania’s school funding lawsuit, denying a motion for post-trial relief filed in February by Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward and House Minority Leader Bryan Cutler.
Senate President Ward and Minority Leader Cutler have not yet announced whether or not they intend to appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. By law, an appeal would have to be filed within 30 days of today’s ruling.
OUR DAY IN COURT
Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional and must be reformed.
In a 786-page decision, the court found that “All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”
The court order calls for the “respondents, comprised of the Executive and Legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with Petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein.”
The court rebuffed respondents’ argument that the current system is adequate, saying “In the 21st century, students need more than a desk, chair, pen, paper, and textbooks.”
Here is the language of the court order:
- The Education Clause, article III, section 14 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, requires that every student receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education;
- Respondents have not fulfilled their obligations to all children under the Education Clause in violation of the rights of Petitioners;
- Education is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution to all school-age children residing in the Commonwealth;
- Article III, section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution imposes upon Respondents an obligation to provide a system of public education that does not discriminate against students based on the level of income and value of taxable property in their school districts;
- Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes;
- The disparity among school districts with high property values and incomes and school districts with low property values and incomes is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective; and
- As a result of these disparities, Petitioners and students attending low-wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.
PA Schools Work Statement:
“Today’s ruling from the Commonwealth Court is a confirmation of what Pennsylvanians already know — our system of funding public education in the Commonwealth is broken. As the PA Schools Work campaign has been saying for years, too many children across the state are struggling because their schools do not have the local resources necessary to help students reach their full potential. This ruling is a repudiation of a bare-bones system of public education that opponents of this lawsuit defended in court during the trial. Now, as ordered by the court, the state legislature has no choice but to fix the state’s broken, unjust funding system. We look forward to working with them to achieve that historic goal.”
Pennsylvania ranks 45th in the nation for state share of funding for K-12 education. This ranking is a clear and unequivocal measure of the state’s inadequate and inequitable school funding system, which is failing students and local taxpayers and weakening Pennsylvania’s future.
This underfunding isn’t some abstract principle. It determines which kids get what they need, and which kids do not.
It is teachers and counselors. Nurses and librarians. Computers and STEM labs. Art and music. Smaller class sizes and remedial help for children who are struggling to learn. In Pennsylvania, local wealth shapes everything kids need in school to reach.