Commonwealth Court weighs fate of Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit
March 12, 2015 – by Karen Langley, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette – HARRISBURG — Seeking to stymie a legal challenge to how Pennsylvania pays for its public schools, lawyers for the state told a panel of judges Wednesday that education funding is not a matter for the courts to decide.
Patrick Northen, an attorney for Republican legislative leaders, cited a decision in the late 1990s in which the Pennsylvania courts found that questions of what constitutes an adequate education, and whether adequate funds are available to provide it, are ones for the General Assembly.
In November, six school districts, parents of schoolchildren, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the state conference of the NAACP filed a lawsuit asking the state courts to find that the current system of school funding violates a provision in the state Constitution that the General Assembly “shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
They asked that the courts order the state to develop a funding policy that provides all Pennsylvania students with an equal opportunity to obtain an education.
But lawyers representing the state objected that education funding is a matter for the Legislature, and so on Wednesday both sides gathered before a panel of Commonwealth Court judges to argue that point.
Brad Elias, a lawyer for the petitioners, said the landscape has changed since the courts found that education funding was the purview of the General Assembly. Since then, he said, the state has adopted academic standards and tests that define and assess an adequate education.
The school districts and other parties have argued that these standards and tests, along with a study to determine the cost of education, give the courts objective standards through which they can determine if the state has met its own benchmarks in education.
Judge P. Kevin Brobson questioned how the courts could find that the state had failed its obligation: Would it be if a certain percentage of students did not pass the state tests? Would a low rate in a single district indicate the entire system had failed?
The lawyers for the state presented a far lower standard of the level of school function that would show the General Assembly had satisfied its constitutional obligation: If school districts could not open, Mr. Northen said, that could become a question for the courts.
Speaking after the hearing, Michael Churchill, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia who represents the petitioners, rejected that measurement.
“That’s a 19th century standard of what an adequate school is,” he said. “The Legislature itself has now told us what is necessary, and that is for students to be able to meet the standards set forth in the Keystone Exams and the other testing that the state imposes and mandates.”
During the hearing, attorneys for the state said that policymakers are working to address any problems in how Pennsylvania pays for its schools. Gov. Tom Wolf, who was elected in November, has called for increases in state education funding. A commission made up of legislators and other state officials has been charged with recommending a funding formula.
“This is a public policy debate,” said Lucy Fritz, an attorney representing the executive branch. That debate, she said, is occurring “exactly where it should be.”
Joseph Bruni, superintendent of the William Penn School District in Delaware County, said afterward that he hopes the courts take up the case.
“The system of funding for our public schools is broken,” he said. “We need to fix that as soon as possible.”