School Funding Suit Against State Advances Despite Promises From Wolf
March 11, 2015 – by Joel Mathis, Philadelphia Magazine – It’s time for Pennsylvania’s courts to force the state legislature to properly fund state schools, attorneys representing a coalition of money-hungry school districts argued today before the Commonwealth Court at Harrisburg.
“We argued today in court the schoolchildren of Pennsylvania have an enforceable right to be heard,” said Maura McInerney, an attorney for the Education Law Center, which helped bring the case. She spoke during a conference call after the court appearance. “The court,” she said, “has a vital role to play in enforcing the state constitution.”
The state constitution mandates: “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.” Previous lawsuits to force the legislature to boost funding to schools have failed, however, with courts reluctant to intervene — saying that maintaining such a system is a political question best left to the executive and legislative branches of government.
Today’s plaintiffs argued, however, that in the years since the lawsuit, the General Assembly has created a standard to be judged against: The Keystone Exams, completion of which is a graduation requirement. If students are unable to meet the standards of those legislatively approved exams, they argued, it means the state is failing to fund education adequately to help students pass.
“What we want (judges) to do is tell the Legislature it has not complied and the system is broken,”said Michael Churchill, an attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which also brought the case.
Gov. Tom Wolf has asked the legislature for a giant infusion of new money to fund schools, but Churchill said the plaintiffs weren’t waiting to see how that process pans out. “If someday the legislature and the governor provide sufficient funding … we would lose (the lawsuit) on the merits,” he said. Right now, that’s not considered a problem.
The six school districts that are plaintiffs are — as Patrick Kerkstra noted in November — a carefully assembled, geographically diverse mix including William Penn (the Delco ’burbs), Lancaster, Panther Valley (Carbon County), Greater Johnstown (Cambria County), Shenandoah Valley (Schuylkill County) and Wilkes-Barre. Also suing are the state NAACP, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and a handful of families — including some from Philadelphia — with children enrolled in public schools.
Attorneys in the case said they did not know when a ruling might be expected, but that a typical timeline for the court is four to five months.