In victory for students, Court rules that Pa. school funding lawsuit is not moot

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

August 21, 2018

Contact: Paul Socolar, Education Law Center, 215-906-1250, [email protected]

Jonathan McJunkin, Public Interest Law Center, 267-546-1305, [email protected] 

In victory for students, Court rules that Pa. school funding lawsuit is not moot

Commonwealth Court dismisses Senator Scarnati’s motion that the case was rendered moot by the adoption of a fair funding formula in 2016

Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court ruled Tuesday that a lawsuit challenging the state’s school funding system can move forward, denying a claim by state legislative leaders that the lawsuit was rendered moot by the state’s adoption of a funding formula in 2016.

The lawsuit was filed in 2014 by the Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations alleging that the state’s school funding system violates Pennsylvania’s constitution, due to significant underfunding and gross disparities in allocations that penalize students in low-wealth districts.  

The ruling is a significant victory for petitioners in the lawsuit William Penn School District et al. v. PA Department of Education et al., eliminating a major obstacle to a trial in the case.

Judge Robert Simpson wrote the court order, rejecting claims by Senate President Scarnati and House Speaker Turzai that a change in the school funding formula made the issues in the case moot.

“We are pleased that the court has denied respondents’ baseless attempt to dismiss our lawsuit,” said Education Law Center Legal Director Maura McInerney. “As the court recognized, our challenge to the inadequacy and inequity of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system will persist. We look forward to presenting our case at trial.”

The petitioners’ brief responding to the mootness challenge demonstrated that the spending gap between wealthy and poor school districts has actually widened since the lawsuit was filed, and that state funds available for classroom spending have declined.  Pennsylvania’s school funding formula applies to only a tiny fraction of the state’s K-12 education funding.

“Pennsylvania’s school funding system still deprives students of the resources they need,” said Public Interest Law Center Staff Attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg. “We are talking about the basics: not enough teachers, out-of-date books, and buildings that crumble around the children inside of them. That was the reality when we filed the case, and it continues today.”

Respondents in the case – legislative leaders, the governor, the secretary of education, the department of education, and the state board of education – will finally be required to answer the allegations in the lawsuit. Gov. Wolf opposed the mootness challenge and urged the court to move the case to trial swiftly. Petitioners have requested a scheduling conference and hope to proceed to trial quickly. The date for a trial is not yet known. 

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 of Pennsylvania. In the fall of 2017, in a landmark ruling, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court determined that there are judicially manageable standards for courts to review school funding issues. The state’s highest court remanded the case to Commonwealth Court for a full trial. Since that ruling, two respondents – Senator Scarnati and Representative Turzai – have tried to dismiss the case or further delay trial. A May 2018 Commonwealth Court ruling dismissed most of their preliminary objections but directed parties to file briefs on the issue of mootness.

###

The Education Law Center-PA (ELC) is a nonprofit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness. For more information, visit elc-pa.org or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to advance the civil, social, and economic rights of communities in the Philadelphia region facing discrimination, inequality, and poverty. We use litigation, community education, advocacy, and organizing to secure their access to fundamental resources and services in the areas of public education, housing, health care, employment, environmental justice and voting. For more information visit www.pubintlaw.org or follow on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.

State leaders respond to ‘moot’ claim in education funding lawsuit

Delco News Network quotes ELC Legal Director Maura McInerney in an article on Governor Wolf and Senator Joe Scarnati’s opposing briefs on the legal status of ELC’s school funding lawsuit.  They write: “‘The governor recognizes that our public school children continue to suffer the painful consequences of underfunded schools every day. He understands that their need for justice is now,’ said Maura McInerney. ‘There can be no question that a dispute continues to exist regarding the adequacy and equity of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system.'” Read more here.

Opposition Brief to Mootness Application Filed in School Funding Case

Funding gaps between high-wealth and low-wealth districts are growing, and state funding for classroom expenses has declined over four years. Those are key points in our latest brief in the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court case filed by parents, school districts, and two statewide associations challenging Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system. In May, the Court directed the parties to address the issue of whether the state’s adoption of an education funding formula in 2016 renders the case moot. Our brief, filed July 6, 2018, refutes that argument made by respondent Senator Scarnati. Affidavits detail the difficult conditions in our petitioners’ school districts, making clear that the state’s funding system has not been fixed.  There’s more information in the News Release, and you can read the case documents here.

Pennsylvania’s New Budget: For Education, Barely a Start

Pennsylvania has an on-time budget for 2018-19, approved by the legislature and signed by Gov. Wolf on June 22. It provides modest but needed new funding for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. While the additional dollars for schools help, this budget increase provides only a small fraction of what is needed for an adequately and equitably funded statewide public education system. The heavy lifting is still needed as urgently as ever to address shortfalls in school funding across the state. Read more here.

Commonwealth Court Holds Oral Argument in ELC’s Funding Case

Not even a snowstorm could halt the momentum of ELC’s Fair Funding Lawsuit, as advocates from ELC, PILC, and pro bono counsel O’Melveny and Myers argued today that objections filed by the defendants were without merit and should be dismissed, allowing the case to move to discovery and trial.  Details, including links to news coverage of the oral arguments, are here.

Pennsylvania’s Landmark School Funding Lawsuit Heads Back to Court

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court will hear oral arguments next Wednesday in a landmark lawsuit challenging inequitable and inadequate school funding in Pennsylvania. Attorneys from the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center will ask the Court to reject remaining preliminary objections and a motion to dismiss asserted by the legislature so that the case can proceed directly and promptly to trial.  Read the News Release here.

ELC Applauds Gov. Wolf’s Education Budget Proposals, but PA Still Has Far to Go.

Education Law Center Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr applauded Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposed increases in funding for basic education, special education, early education, and career and technical education in his Feb. 6 budget address. But the state still has far to go, she said in a press statement, to achieve an adequate and equitable funding system. Read the statement here.

Governor Wolf Withdraws Objections And Agrees School Funding Lawsuit Should Move Forward Swiftly

In a January 25 court filing, Governor Wolf, on behalf of Pennsylvania’s Executive Branch, dropped all previous objections and requested that the Commonwealth Court move our fair funding case forward.  Legislative respondents continue to oppose the case moving forward; Senator Scarnati filed a brief blaming poor school districts for their own underfunding.  Read the joint news release by ELC and the Public Interest Law Center here.

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.

City’s public schools, education beneficiaries of new state budget

by Stacy M. Brown, Philadelphia Tribune, Jul 8, 2017

After state lawmakers overwhelmingly passed a $32 billion budget that still has no defined plan in which to pay for it, many around the commonwealth have hailed the spending plan as a victory for public schools and for early childhood and special education.

Local lawmakers added that it’s a victory for Philadelphia area schools as well.

Continue reading

Education Law Center Statement on the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Proposed 2017-18 State Budget

June 30, 2017

PHILADELPHIA, PA – Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center, released the following statement today in response to the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s proposed 2017-18 state budget:

“The Pennsylvania General Assembly has sent Governor Tom Wolf a compromise state budget agreement that provides some needed new funding for education, including basic education, special education, and early education. Specifically, the bill includes $100 million increase for basic education funding, $25 million increase in special education, $30 million in additional funding for early education, and a $19 million increase in funding for early intervention services for children ages birth-five. Our schools and students sorely need these resources now and the Education Law Center urges Governor Wolf to sign the budget into law. Continue reading