News Room

Pennsylvania’s school funding dispute headed to state’s high court

April 21, 2015 – by Karen Langle, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau – HARRISBURG — A panel of judges ruled Tuesday that the power to make decisions on school funding rests with the General Assembly and not the courts.

The ruling from Commonwealth Court sets up an appeal to the state Supreme Court in a lawsuit claiming that Pennsylvania’s funding system fails to meet the state’s obligation to students in poorer school districts.

But attorneys for the school districts, parents and associations who brought the suit had argued that the adoption since that time of state academic standards allows the courts to assess whether students are achieving their educational objectives.

Attorneys for the petitioners said they will file an appeal to the state Supreme Court.

“This is a question of paramount importance to all Pennsylvanians, and we always knew this would ultimately be decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said in a statement.

The six school districts, parents of school children, Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and Pennsylvania state conference of the NAACP say the state has violated its constitutional obligation to education by sending too little money to schools and by allowing schools in poor communities to operate with less funding per student than do schools in wealthy places.

In its ruling Tuesday, the Commonwealth Court panel said the level of funding needed for each student is a decision for the Legislature, not the courts.

“This is a legislative policy determination that has been solely committed to the General Assembly,” says the opinion, written by President Judge Dan Pellegrini.

In 1999, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court found that two lawsuits challenging how Pennsylvania funds its schools could not be decided by the courts, saying in a case brought by Philadelphia that the judicial branch could not overturn legislative decisions on education.

Legislative Republicans praised Tuesday’s ruling.

“Today’s decision by a unanimous Commonwealth Court validates our position that decisions regarding education funding are fully vested in the Legislature,” Senate President Pro Tem Joe Scarnati, R-Jefferson, said in a statement. He said an appeal of the ruling would increase the cost of the lawsuit to taxpayers.

Steve Miskin, spokesman for House Speaker Mike Turzai, noted that Gov. Tom Wolf’s nominee for education secretary, Pedro Rivera, was superintendent of the School District of Lancaster when that district joined the lawsuit.

A Democratic senator from Philadelphia saw the decision differently. Sen. Vincent Hughes, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, said the courts should “interject themselves” and ensure there is fair funding for schools. “We’ve waited far too long for the Legislature to appropriately respond,” he said. “When do the kids get equitable funding?”

Mr. Wolf has proposed boosting the main funding line for K-12 schools by $400 million. Jeffrey Sheridan, his spokesman, said the governor is committed to working with a government commission charged with recommending a school funding formula.

The school districts bringing the lawsuit are William Penn School District in southeastern Pennsylvania, the School District of Lancaster, Panther Valley School District in Carbon County, Greater Johnstown School District, Shenandoah Valley School District in Schuylkill County and Wilkes-Barre Area School District.