The landmark trial that could reshape how Pennsylvania pays for education wrapped up Tuesday, with lawyers for the petitioners arguing that the commonwealth’s education-funding system violates its constitution and is “inadequate,” “inequitable,” and “illogical.”
Eight months after the funding trial began — and eight years after school districts, parents, and organizations filed the lawsuit — lawyers gave their post-trial arguments before Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer in a Harrisburg courtroom.
What’s at issue in the Pa. funding case?
In a trial that stretched over four months, attorneys for the petitioners argued that less wealthy districts like Philadelphia and William Penn in Delaware County — one of the petitioners — simply cannot meet their students needs, despite a constitutional obligation to do so, because the state fails to allocate enough money to districts that educate large numbers of needy students. (Wealthier districts are better able to raise the funds they need through property taxes.)
That’s tantamount to discrimination, the petitioners argue. Administrators, teachers, and students described large classes, crumbling buildings, insufficient staff, and not enough supports in such districts.
Lawyers for defendants Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler said Pennsylvania meets constitutional standards; they pointed out that the commonwealth’s average per-pupil spending ranks in the top 10 states in the nation. (Still, Pennsylvania has among the biggest gaps in spending between high-wealth and low-wealth districts.)
They suggested standardized test scores were not an adequate measure of educational quality, as the petitioners had presented, and one lawyer asked a McKean County superintendent, “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”
What arguments did lawyers make Tuesday?
Lawyers amplified points outlined in their post-trial filings.
Katrina Robson, arguing for the petitioners, delved into the state constitution’s education clause, asserting that the framers “imposed on the General Assembly a mandate to provide a system of education that was ‘thorough and efficient.’ Those words are critical, they have meaning, and they are why we are here today.”
Jubelirer peppered both sides with questions, noting at one point that she was playing “devil’s advocate.” She asked Robson whether a “thorough and efficient” standard would equal basic proficiency as measured by state exams (she said no), or would it mean 100% of all students were proficient on those tests?
Robson said the court must arrive at a standard that is “workable and practical.”
Though the state has boosted education funding, including adding more money for the neediest districts, that still doesn’t meet the constitutional standard, lawyer Dan Urevick-Acklesberg said. (The state also adopted a fair-funding formula several years ago, but the bulk of all aid is not run through that formula. If it were, Philadelphia alone would receive about $400 million more annually.)
“It’s a generational problem,” Urevick-Acklesberg said. “You can’t climb out of it in one year.”
At issue is whether an education is constitutionally guaranteed
The constitution “does not confer a right to receive an education,” said Anthony Holtzman, a lawyer for Corman. Rather, the legislature gave children that right. The legislature is only obligated to provide a system of public schools, he said.
Thomas DeCesar, another Corman lawyer, said the court must judge only what schools provide, not what those resources produce.
“Outcomes are widely impacted by out-of-school factors,” DeCesar said. “Judging the system of education based on those outcomes, which reflect much more than what is going on in the system of education, would mean that the General Assembly is responsible and school systems are responsible for things they cannot control.”
It could be months before Jubelirer makes a decision, and whatever she decides is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Lawyers for the respondents said that it was the General Assembly’s responsibility to determine at what level students must achieve to meet an adequacy standard, and that requiring the court to do so would mean “this court would have to become essentially a super school board. ... Courts are not supposed to act as super school boards setting educational policy.”
Gov. Tom Wolf is also a party to the lawsuit. Sophia Lee, a lawyer representing him, diverged from the legislative respondents in maintaining that the state must weigh education spending heavier than, say, spending on prisons or roads, which the state is not constitutionally obligated to provide.
“A non-constitutional need cannot take priority over the constitutional mandate for a thorough and efficient system that serves the needs of the commonwealth,” Lee said.
At one point, DeCesar was asked about building conditions in low-wealth schools — specifically a lack of heat and air-conditioning.
“I don’t believe I recall testimony about any school building not having heat,” DeCesar said. He said he recalled testimony about heat breaking on occasion, and said “almost all, if not all” air-conditioning problems “were being remedied.”
In Philadelphia, about half of all district buildings lack air-conditioning in all instructional spaces.
As lawyers argued, parents and kids rally in Harrisburg
Paul Vandy, a senior at Penn Wood High School in Delaware County, traveled to Harrisburg on Tuesday, he said, because the outcome of the trial is enormously important to him and the thousands of other students like him across the state who are learning in poor districts.
Vandy, 17, said his awareness of the problem grew when he visited neighboring schools in more well-off areas.
“It’s not right that these students a few miles down the road have all these opportunities and we don’t,” said Vandy, who said Penn Wood lacks a robust list of Advanced Placement courses and programs because of its funding situation. “We’re all still students. We’re in the same state and we have so much less than them.”
Laura Johnson, parent of three children in the Pottstown School in Montgomery County, also joined the lunchtime rally, where about three dozen people gathered in the Capitol Rotunda.
She got involved in the funding fight because “the state does not contribute to schools in a way that’s equitable or fair,” said Johnson, a Pottstown school board member.
“Our middle school doesn’t have music and it doesn’t have foreign language anymore,” said Johnson. “Things have been cut because the budget has to be balanced. And we can’t just keep continually draining our taxpayers.”
What happens next?
Oral arguments, which lasted all day, finished Tuesday. It could be months before Jubelirer makes a decision, and whatever she decides is likely to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.