News Room

Suit challenging school funding headed to top Pa. court

April 21, 2015 – by Kristen A. Graham and Martha Woodall, Philadelphia Inquirer – A lawsuit contending that Pennsylvania’s system of school funding is broken will move to the state’s top court, attorneys vowed Tuesday after a lower court dismissed the case brought by school districts, parents, and advocates.

Lawyers said they would appeal to the state Supreme Court after the Commonwealth Court ruled that education funding was a legislative issue and not a legal matter.

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

“At a time when research and the national press have singled out Pennsylvania as the state with the most unequal funding in the country, we are disappointed that the Commonwealth Court did not address this claim in any meaningful way,” added Maura McInerney, senior staff attorney at the Education Law Center-PA, which also represented plaintiffs.
Top Republican lawmakers lauded the Commonwealth Court’s ruling.

Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said the opinion “validates our position that decisions regarding education funding are fully vested in the legislature.”

Scarnati said school funding “has been thoroughly vetted by the Pennsylvania judicial branch on numerous occasions, and we see no reason why the plaintiffs should pursue an appeal, which would needlessly place additional costs upon taxpayers to continue to defend an issue that is well settled.”

House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) called the decision “a very positive step.” He said the state constitution gives the legislature the authority to determine spending on schools.

Turzai pointed out that Pennsylvania spends nearly $27 billion in state and local funds on K-12 education a year.

Parents, including two from the Philadelphia School District, and districts including the William Penn system in Delaware County filed the suit last fall, saying state officials had “adopted an irrational school funding system that does not deliver the essential resources students need and discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.”

Similar suits have failed in the past, but the plaintiffs’ attorneys hoped adoption of statewide academic standards and exams since the earlier decisions would force the court’s hand, convincing judges that Pennsylvania was not providing an adequate education, as required by the state constitution.

During oral arguments last month in Harrisburg, attorneys for the state said that it was meeting its constitutional obligation by keeping schools open.

Tuesday’s 12-page opinion, written by Dan Pellegrini, president judge of Commonwealth Court, said that educational funding was “a legislative policy determination that has been solely committed to the General Assembly.”

The court, he wrote, does not have the power to determine whether the legislature has fulfilled its duty under the constitution.

The ruling came as several efforts are underway to address how schools are paid for in Pennsylvania. A bipartisan commission has been holding hearings to develop and recommend a new method for distributing basic education funds to public schools.

Gov. Wolf’s nearly $30 billion proposed state budget would boost basic education funds and provide other resources for the state’s cash-strapped schools.

“Gov. Wolf has proposed a historic commitment to education by investing $1 billion in early childhood, K-12, and higher education,” Jeff Sheridan, Wolf’s spokesman, said Tuesday. “At the K-12 level, the governor has proposed increasing basic education funding by $400 million, and he has introduced a plan to ensure that this money will be used in the classroom to benefit our children.”

Sheridan said Wolf was also committed to working with the education funding commission and the legislature “to come up with a fair funding formula that provides state funding to districts in a fair and equitable manner.”

Michael Churchill, of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, praised Wolf’s efforts, but added: “This case is about assuring that the long-term issues are addressed by the legislature, as well as the short-term ones. It’s important to establish the fact that the legislature has to comply with the state constitution over the long run.”

The ruling in the school-funding suit had been long awaited in Philadelphia, where budget cuts have rocked the district. Mayoral candidate Lynne Abraham had used it as part of her education platform, saying she would join the suit to force Harrisburg to better fund schools.