News Room

School funding lawsuit hinges on whether court will hear it

March 11, 2015 – by Jan Murphy, Patriot News – Saying just turning on the lights and keeping the school doors open falls short of the Legislature’s constitutional obligation of providing a “thorough and efficient” education, education advocates argued that is why the court needs to intervene.

During a lively hourlong proceeding on Wednesday before the Commonwealth Court, attorneys for six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP called on the panel of seven judges to hold a trial on their claims the state’s education funding system is broken.

The education advocates filed a lawsuit against the commonwealth in November claiming the state is using an irrational system of distributing state subsidies that has created academic inequities and robbed students of a “thorough and efficient” education.

State officials have asked the court to dismiss the case.

But before the merits of the case can be heard, the Commonwealth Court first has to determien whether the courts has a role in deciding it. No matter what the Commonwealth Court decides, the ruling is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court, where previous school funding cases have been rejected as not a matter for the General Assembly and governor to decide, not the courts.

For that reason, attorneys representing the Legislature and commonwealth began their arguments saying this latest school funding case was “reminiscent of Groundhog’s Day.”

“It’s a political question,” Patrick Northern, outside counsel representing the House and Senate, told the judges.

However, the judges in their questions couldn’t resist delving into the heart of the lawsuit about whether the Legislature was fulfilling its constitutional obligation when it comes to education.

“I believe as long as public schools are in place … they have fulfilled their constitutional duty,” Northen said.

Afterward, Michael Churchill, of counsel to the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, called that view an outdated standard.

“That’s a 19th century standard of what an adequate school is,” he said.

Back in the courtroom, Brad Elias, the attorney for the districts and school groups, argued that the expectations placed on public schools have changed from the time earlier court rulings on school funding were handed down.

He said academic standards have since been put in place, along with a general graduation requirement for students to pass the Keystone Exams to receive a diploma. Without an adequate funding system in place, he said many school districts are unable to deliver an education that allows students to meet those requirements.

During his part of arguments, Northen addressed that point. “Nobody is arguing that there aren’t serious issues that need to be resolved with respect to the educational funding system,” he said. But it’s a discussion to be held between the General Assembly and governor.

During a brief stop in the Capitol newsroom after the hearing, Gov. Tom Wolf’s Chief of Staff Katie McGinty agreed that the current funding level of schools is “intolerable and inadequate.”

She declined to say whether she sided with the parents and school groups in their lawsuit, but said on the bigger issue of funding, “the governor decidedly believes that we need to do better by our kids and reinvest in education.”

Despite Wolf’s commitment to increase education funding by $2 billion over four years and the ongoing work of the Basic Education Funding Commission to craft a school funding formula, the groups filing the lawsuit say those efforts do not guarantee schools will be adequately funded.

“A proposal by the governor in and of itself is clearly not sufficient. But in addition, what they need to do is develop a system that is rationally related to the goal of providing every student in every school the opportunity to have a thorough and efficient education,” said Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney for the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center.

Susan Spicka, a parent and member of Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, said the funding cuts in recent years have left schools with little choice except to raise taxes, cut programs, and in many cases, they had to do both.

“The state must quite simply play a greater role in providing resources,” she said.

Superintendent Joe Bruni of William Penn School District in Delaware County said he is hopeful the court hears the case.

“Our legislators need to be held accountable to ensure all of Pennsylvania’s children or the color of their skin have access to a through and efficient system of public education,” Bruni said. “The system of funding for our public schools is broken. We need to fix that as soon as possible. Hopefully this case will move that decision closer to happening.”

But toward the end of the hearing, President Judge Dan Pellegrini questioned whether a decision will have any effect. He and other judges pointed to a court case where the Legislature was ordered to provide full funding for the courts only to have lawmakers ignore that ruling.

Given the outcome of that case, Pellegrini said, “I’m not going to issue an order we can’t enforce.”

Education advocates dismissed that concern as too premature to consider. Churchill, the attorney representing the Public Interest Law Center, said it was premature to consider that question.

Besides, he added, “I have no reason to believe that they would do that given the importance of education. The fact that they have in the past been reluctant to comply with orders for funding courts doesn’t mean they will not comply with these orders.”

Staff writer Christian Alexandersen contributed.