Pa. Supreme Court Delivers Major Victory for Schoolchildren across the Commonwealth in School Funding Case

On September 28, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court delivered a major victory to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students by ordering the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial on whether state officials are violating the state’s constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education.

The lawsuit – William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. – was filed in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the failure in Harrisburg to adequately fund public education and provide students with the resources they need to succeed academically.

In a sweeping decision, the Court agreed that it has a clear duty to consider the case and ensure legislative compliance with the state’s Education Clause, which requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. The Court also found no basis to deny consideration of claims by parents and school districts that the legislature’s grossly unequal funding discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.  Read the decision here.

“Judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches,” Justice David N. Wecht wrote in his majority opinion. “It is fair neither to the people of the Commonwealth nor the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate.”

“Today’s ruling ensures that our schoolchildren across Pennsylvania will finally have their day in court,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of Education Law Center – PA, which brought the suit along with the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono counsel from O’Melveny & Myers LLP. “We look forward to presenting extensive evidence proving that decades of underfunding and inequity in our public education system violate Pennsylvania’s Constitution.”

“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark decision today vindicates the principle that adequate and fair school funding is a constitutional mandate, not a political issue,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center. “Now that the court has ruled that education funding is subject to judicial review, we hope the Governor and legislature will work with us and our partners to bring Pennsylvania into constitutional compliance by ensuring that every school has adequate resources.”

“We are gratified by the Supreme Court’s decision and the opportunity to take this case to trial, and we hope it will be a turning point for Pennsylvania’s public education system,” said Brad Elias, an attorney with O’Melveny & Myers who serves as pro bono counsel for the petitioners. “Our goal is to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have equal access to a thorough and efficient education, and this decision brings us one step closer to achieving that.”

The case now heads back to Commonwealth Court for a full trial, which will permit advocates to present evidence proving their claims. Lawyers on the case will ask the court to expedite the trial, given the importance of the case.

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court dismissed the case in 2015, relying on an older Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision and saying that education funding was not subject to judicial review. Today the state’s highest court reversed that decision, and overruled that earlier precedent, agreeing with advocates that school children and school districts must be able to seek relief from the Courts to protect their rights to a quality education.

“Judicial oversight must be commensurate with the priority reflected in the fact that for centuries our charter has featured some form of educational mandate,” Justice Wecht wrote. “Otherwise, it is all but inevitable that the obligation to support and maintain a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education’ will jostle on equal terms with non-constitutional considerations that the people deemed unworthy of embodying in their Constitution. We cannot avoid our responsibility to monitor the General Assembly’s efforts in service of its mandate and to measure those effects against the constitutional imperative, ensuring that non-constitutional considerations never prevail over that mandate.”

The petitioners in the case are six families, six school districts – William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley – the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.

“Today’s ruling represents a major victory for civil rights across Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania NAACP President Dr. Joan Duvall-Flynn. “For too long, access to a quality education has been limited to those who live in the right ZIP code, leading to vast disparities that disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families. This decision presents an opportunity to dismantle barriers that prevent children of color from getting the education they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.”

“While our children struggle in schools without adequate technology, dedicated arts, music, library or physical education teachers, students several miles away attend school in modern buildings with the latest course offerings,” said Jamella and Bryant Miller, public school parents who live in Landsdowne and who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The court’s decision means that it’s time for our elected officials to address these devastating disparities by providing the funding our schools require to provide a quality education to our children.”

Given the dire situation many schools face, lawyers on the case will work to bring it to trial as soon as possible. Many schools have yet to recover from the drastic funding cuts of 2011 and still lack basic resources, including updated textbooks, modern curricula and school counselors. Compounding this issue, only 6 percent of the state’s education budget is being distributed through the basic education funding formula, which was adopted by the legislature in 2015 in an attempt to distribute funds based on actual student needs. Finally, modest investments in education over the past few years remain inadequate and the legislature has abandoned setting any goal for adequate funding.

Maura McInerney, Esq., Appointed ELC’s New Legal Director

The Board and Staff of the Education Law Center are thrilled to announce that Maura McInerney has been named ELC’s Legal Director! Maura, an attorney at the Education Law Center since 2007, has over thirty years of litigation experience in the private and public sectors.  Maura’s appointment is an exciting new development as we continue to grow our work. She is a brilliant, hard-working, visionary, and compassionate attorney.  More information here.

Join the Education Law Center in supporting The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act and The Fostering Success in Higher Education Act of 2017

Join the Education Law Center in supporting The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act (HEASHFY) and The Fostering Success in Higher Education Act of 2017 (FSHEA). Passage of these new bills will mean that youth who are homeless and those who are from the foster care system will be able to enroll, afford, and graduate with a college degree.  Join us in supporting this important legislation by usoing these forms to send a letter of support  to your U.S. Senator and your U.S. Representative. Please download the letters and personalize them with local or state facts, as well as your own perspectives and experiences. Contact information for U.S. Senators may be found here.  Contact information for U.S. Representatives may be found here. Sign your organization on as a supporter of the bills by filling out this form.

The Education Law Center strongly supports the HEASHFY Act introduced this week by Senators Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rob Portman (R-OH) and by Representatives Katherine Clark (D-5th/MA) and Don Young (R-AK).  “We know from our experience that youth experiencing homelessness and those in foster care confront unique barriers to accessing and completing higher education,” said Maura McInerney, Senior Attorney at the Education Law Center. “These two bills will be a game-changer for our youth because they address the core barriers they confront: from having verification of their independent status, to navigating the high cost of tuition, to ensuring housing between semesters.  Passage of these new bills will mean that youth who are homeless and those who are from the foster care system will be able to enroll, afford, and graduate with a degree.”

Specifically, the HEASHFY streamlines the application and verification process for financial aid for foster and homeless unaccompanied youth; clarifies eligibility for “independent” student status for homeless and foster youth; strengthens recruitment of these students; requires colleges and universities to designate single points of contact to assist homeless and foster youth to access and complete higher education and connects them with resources; provides housing resources during and between academic terms; and includes homeless and foster youth in the data collected by college access programs and identify ways they can further support these students; and

The FSHEA improves college access, retention, and completion rates for foster and homeless youth by substantially improving state capacity to support students by creating a new grant program in the Higher Education Act administered by the US Department of Education to establish or expand statewide initiatives that assist foster and homeless youth in enrolling and graduating from higher education and establishing formula grants to states based on a state’s share of foster youth and homeless youth among all 50 states and the District of Columbia.  The Act also develops “institutions of excellence” committed to serving foster and homeless youth from entrance to completion via robust support services and by covering the remaining cost of attendance beyond federal and state grants; and establishing intensive, statewide transition initiatives to increase the preparation and application of foster and homeless youth to higher education.




ELC Welcomes New Board Members, Board Officers, and Staff

Please join us in welcoming our

  • Two new Board members:   W. John Lee and Lezlie Madden,
  • Two new Board Officers:  Gretchen Santamour and Al Suh,
  • Five new members of ELC’s staff:  Reynelle Brown Staley, Paige Joki, Rabiyah Mujahid, Jackie Perlow, and Lizzy Wingfield.

Click here for more details about our growing team.