School-funding crisis deserves its day in court
A trial is the best hope for the thousands of children across our commonwealth to obtain access to the quality education to which they are entitled.
Pennsylvania's business community has watched with growing concern as our commonwealth's schools have fallen deeper and deeper into crisis over the last several years. In the wake of drastic funding cuts, school districts across our state have been forced to lay off thousands of teachers, while cutting AP classes, art, music, and extracurricular opportunities and losing crucial support staff — like guidance counselors and school nurses.
The state's school-funding situation is now so dire that many schools aren't even able to offer the curriculum and supports that are mandated by law. In too many schools, over-stretched teachers struggle every day to deliver even the most basic education. The result has been plummeting test scores and lost opportunities for thousands of children — especially poorer children and children of color, whose schools were disproportionately affected by budget cuts.
Money can't solve every problem, but adequate resources are a necessary ingredient for student success.
As attorneys who work with some of our state's largest corporate citizens, we know firsthand that investment in our education system makes economic sense. An educated workforce is key to effectively competing in the global economy, and great schools are crucial to convincing businesses to remain or locate in Pennsylvania.
While local governments have increased local taxes to try to make up for a lack of funding at the state level, in the end only Harrisburg can marshal the resources needed to ensure all children have access to a quality public education. The current budget stalemate in Harrisburg underlines just how ineffective our political branches of government have been at meeting this important obligation to our children.
How can our children be prepared to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy when they attend schools with outdated textbooks and overcrowded classrooms?
Fortunately, our state Constitution provides another path forward out of the gridlock for Pennsylvania's children: It expressly requires the legislature to "support and maintain" a "thorough and efficient" system of public education to support our children and "serve the needs of the commonwealth."
Six school districts, seven families, and organizations representing additional districts and parents, all of whom have seen the impact of continued disinvestment in our schools, are suing the commonwealth and asking the courts to ensure that state government finally lives up to its constitutional obligations.
The plaintiffs come from large urban districts like Philadelphia and struggling rural districts like Panther Valley in Schuylkill and Carbon Counties, demonstrating that chronic underfunding affects students across Pennsylvania. They are being represented by education advocates, including the Education Law Center, which recognize that the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania's schoolchildren can no longer be subject to the whims of the political process.
The case, which cuts to the heart of the inadequacy and inequities that plague our education system, has been moving through our judicial system since 2014. It is now pending before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, presenting the justices with an historic opportunity to enforce this important constitutional provision that will ensure critical opportunities for Pennsylvania's children.
A favorable ruling would permit a full trial on the merits of this case, allowing advocates and the commonwealth to present evidence on the state of our education system and giving the courts an opportunity to fully examine whether Pennsylvania provides the thorough and efficient school system guaranteed by our Constitution.
Even in the unlikely event that legislative leaders approve the full education funding increases proposed by Gov. Wolf last week, we need a long-term and sustained commitment to education that extends beyond any one budget proposal or administration. It has taken years to dig ourselves into this hole. A one-year fix isn't enough to reverse the long-standing inequities that prevent children from achieving their full potential.
A trial is the best hope for the thousands of children across our commonwealth to obtain access to the quality education to which they are entitled. Protecting the rights of children is one of the most sacred duties entrusted to the judiciary. Appellate courts in a majority of states have already made similar rulings on behalf of their states' children.
Enforcement of our Constitution has been a key function of the judiciary ever since our nation's founding. We hope that our state judiciary assumes its rightful place as the guarantor of one of our most important constitutional protections by allowing a full trial on the merits of this very important case.
Gaetan J. Alfano (GJA@Pietragallo.com), Deborah R. Gross (DGross@kcr-law.com), and Mary F. Platt (MPlatt@finemanlawfirm.com) respectively serve as chancellor, chancellor-elect, and vice chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association.