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Landmark Pa. school funding case decided: The state’s system is unconstitutional

In a 786-page decision, Judge Renee Cohn Jubilerer said that over the course of the more than three-month trial that ended a year ago, the petitioners had demonstrated “manifest deficiencies.”

Advocates for school funding held a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg on Nov. 12, 2021.
Advocates for school funding held a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg on Nov. 12, 2021.Read moreKalim A. Bhatti

Pennsylvania schools don’t have the resources to adequately educate all students, and the gaps between the haves and have-nots render the system unconstitutional, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled Tuesday, delivering a long-awaited decision in a landmark case that could reshape education across the state.

The ruling, which comes nearly a year after the trial concluded, and close to a decade after the lawsuit was first filed by advocacy groups, several parents, and six school districts — including Delaware County’s William Penn — directs lawmakers and the governor’s office to ensure that Pennsylvania’s schools provide all students with an education that meets constitutional standards.

How that might be achieved wasn’t clear Tuesday — and might not be for a while. Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer didn’t prescribe a specific remedy in her decision, while Republican legislative leaders — who fought the lawsuit and pushed back on proposals by then-Gov. Tom Wolf to inject larger sums of state money into K-12 schools — didn’t immediately comment on whether they would appeal.

» READ MORE: What to know about the landmark Pa. school funding case decision

But lawyers who brought the case said Jubelirer was clear in her 786-page decision: The system is broken, and more money for schools is needed.

“This is an earthquake that will reverberate for the children of Pennsylvania,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center, which represented the plaintiffs, during a news conference Tuesday evening.

Maura McInerney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center, also representing the school districts, said the issue “affects hundreds of thousands of children — millions of children — generations of entrenched inequities.”

Jubelirer’s opinion, which followed testimony from dozens of witnesses over the course of more than three months, marked the first time a Pennsylvania court has ruled on whether the state’s method of funding schools violated its constitutional promise to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education — as well as whether its system discriminated against students in poorer districts.

On both counts, Jubelirer determined, it did.

The trial demonstrated “manifest deficiencies” between Pennsylvania’s low- and high-wealth districts, Jubelirer said, citing testimony from educators about unmet needs in their schools —“some of which are as basic as safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn.”

And test scores presented by the plaintiffs showing wide achievement gaps between wealthier and poorer districts demonstrate the system’s failings, Jubelirer said.

Jubelirer also said there was “no rational basis” for the disparities between high- and low-wealth districts, which stem from Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on local property taxes to pay for public education. While Pennsylvania has a funding formula that steers added money to districts with lower property wealth and greater student needs, it only applies to a portion of what the state spends on K-12 schools.

» READ MORE: Read the full ruling from the landmark Pa. school funding case

Advocates have called for running more money through that formula, though lawyers for the plaintiffs say the state needs to spend more money on schools rather than simply redistributing existing money. An analysis presented at trial by a Penn State professor said Pennsylvania needs to spend an additional $4.6 billion to adequately fund schools — a figure challenged by lawyers for Republicans during trial. (Their defense also included a suggestion that the state’s academic standards did not matter for students entering certain professions — with one lawyer asking a rural superintendent, ”What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”)

With Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro — who filed an amicus brief in the case in support of the plaintiffs while he was attorney general — set to present his first budget next month, “we certainly expect ... a significant down payment on bringing this system into constitutional compliance,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said. He noted that Shapiro’s newly appointed education secretary, Khalid Mumin, was previously superintendent in Lower Merion, one of the state’s wealthiest districts, and in Reading, one of its poorest, and “we expect them to be partners in getting to work.”

Shapiro said in a statement Tuesday that “creating real opportunity for our children begins in our schools, and I believe every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment, regardless of their zip code.”

“My administration is in the process of thoroughly reviewing the Commonwealth Court’s opinion and we are determining next steps,” he said.

In the state Senate, where Republicans have a majority, Majority Leader Joe Pittman said his office was also still reviewing the decision. He said the Republican caucus was “committed to prioritizing education empowerment and access for students across Pennsylvania,” and added that “our system has always sought to support state and local taxpayers, whom we will continue to respect moving forward as we address all needs of the Commonwealth.”

The decision was hailed by officials in Philadelphia, the state’s largest school system and among its poorest.

“This is a great day for all students in Pennsylvania, it’s a great day for all teachers in Pennsylvania, it’s a great day for all families in Pennsylvania,” said State Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Phila.), a longtime proponent of increased funding for education whose district is in Philadelphia and Montgomery County, and includes both well-funded and struggling school systems. “It gives us the legal support to justify something that I think most of us already knew — that the system was funded inadequately, in a discriminatory fashion.”

And just look at the timing, said Hughes, whose wife, Sheryl Lee Ralph, plays a teacher on TV’s Abbott Elementary, the wildly popular show that depicts a fictional underfunded Philadelphia school.

Abbott Elementary is on TV and the plight of our children was exposed across the nation, and we won the lawsuit,” said Hughes. “I’m just saying.”

Philadelphia school officials, who did not take part in the lawsuit but who were watching it closely, were “ecstatic,” school board president Reginald L. Streater said. “For too long, students in Philadelphia have been shortchanged by a funding system that ignored their needs.”

Jubelirer noted that “the Court is in uncharted territory with this landmark case.”

“Therefore, it seems only reasonable to allow Respondents, comprised of the Executive and Legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with Petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein,” she said.

Although how Pennsylvania gets to equity still has to be worked out, said Katrina Robson, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, the order is unequivocal that it must be achieved.

Jubelirer “makes it clear that what the state is obligated to provide is a meaningful opportunity for every student to succeed academically, socially and civically,” Robson said.