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Pa. Supreme Court opens door to school funding overhaul

The court's opinion enables a trial court to hear arguments in the lawsuit brought by the William Penn School District, which contends that Pennsylvania's school-funding system violates the state constitution's guarantee of a "thorough and efficient system" of education.

Attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, speaks at a rally outside Philadelphia City Hall September 13, 2016 after the PA Supreme Court heard arguments in a case against the Commonwealth over school funding.
Attorney Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, speaks at a rally outside Philadelphia City Hall September 13, 2016 after the PA Supreme Court heard arguments in a case against the Commonwealth over school funding.Read moreCLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court on Thursday reinstated a lawsuit challenging the state's school-funding system, a victory for struggling districts long seeking relief from what they say is an unjust structure that relies too heavily on property taxes and doesn't meet schools' needs.

The decision — a departure from past court rulings dismissing such challenges — restores a lawsuit first brought by the William Penn School District in Delaware County. But its outcome could impact districts across the state, including Philadelphia's.

It was hailed as a "landmark" by plaintiff attorneys, who said it could redefine the state's educational landscape, praised by Gov. Wolf, and assailed as "very alarming" by Republican legislators.

But any impacts wouldn't be immediate; the decision overturns a Commonwealth Court ruling and sends the case back to trial court.

Courts "must take great care in wading deeply into questions of social and economic policy, which we long have recognized as fitting poorly with the judiciary's institutional competencies," Justice David Wecht wrote in the majority opinion.

But "it is fair neither to the people of the commonwealth nor to the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate."

The opinion — joined by four justices and accompanied by two dissenting opinions — enables a trial court to hear arguments in the William Penn lawsuit, which contends that Pennsylvania's school-funding system violates the state constitution's guarantee of a "thorough and efficient system" of education as well as its equal-protection provision.

"Our judiciary has a clear legal duty to ensure the legislature's compliance with its constitutional obligation," said Maura McInerney, a lawyer with the Education Law Center. "Our court must give meaning and force to the legislature's obligation to furnish education that is both thorough and efficient."

Pennsylvania's school-funding system has long been a source of contention, with some of the nation's most dramatic spending gaps between low- and high-income districts and, over the years, an increasing reliance on property taxes.

Petitioners Jamella and Bryant Miller, parents of a daughter in the William Penn system, have seen both sides of the divide. They used to live in Upper Moreland Township, which had a far healthier tax base. Now, they reside in a district that has some of the highest tax rates in the state, but spends far less per pupil than Lower Merion Township — in the 2014-15 school year, $9,500 compared with more than $17,000 in Lower Merion — and they said their daughter and her classmates lack adequate supplies, facilities, and opportunities.

"Families like ours have a disadvantage simply because of our zip code," Jamella Miller said Thursday.

A jubilant Jane Harbert, superintendent of the William Penn district, said that "it just brings tears to my eyes that we're allowed to go further with this. We're fighting a battle not just for William Penn but for the whole state of Pennsylvania."

Former Superintendent Joseph Bruni, who spearheaded the suit, said he had waited a long time for this.

"It still has a way to go, it still has to be proven. But these school districts will have their day in court, which is what they've been asking for," he said. The petitioners include six districts, six families, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.

Bruni also said that the state's new focus on accountability should buttress the case since data show that kids in poorer school districts like William Penn don't achieve as well as children in wealthier districts.

"That's one of the reasons the courts even considered it," said Bruni, who retired in February 2016. In recent years, the achievement gap between rich and poor schools has "just become more glaring."

Besides William Penn, the petitioning school systems are in Lancaster, Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre, Shenandoah Valley, and Panther Valley, near Tamaqua. Lawyers for the districts had argued that the state's adoption of academic standards — not in place when prior funding lawsuits were dismissed — meant it had a duty to provide adequate funding to meet them.

In its opinion, the court noted that the state's academic measures may change, making them "ill-suited … to serve as a constitutional minimum now or in the future."

But it pointed to a broader demand from the districts: that the General Assembly must provide the "support necessary to ensure that all students have the opportunity to obtain an adequate education that will enable them to … participate meaningfully in the economic, civic, and social activities of our society."

The court also referred to other states where courts have weighed in on education funding, including New Jersey. "Courts in a substantial majority of American jurisdictions have declined to let the potential difficulty and conflict that may attend constitutional oversight of education dissuade them from undertaking the task of judicial review," the opinion said.

While Pennsylvania recently adopted a new funding formula — directing added money to districts with more poor students or students learning English, among other factors — it only applies to a fraction of the state's education spending.

Gov. Wolf, who was elected in 2014 promising to sharply increase education funding, said Thursday that "while we have made progress to invest hundreds of millions more in our schools and enact a fair funding formula that takes into account the needs of students in their districts, we know more must be done."

"This ruling validates my long-held position that the commonwealth must further examine the equity and adequacy of public school funding," said Wolf, who along with the state Education Department and legislative leaders is a defendant in the William Penn lawsuit.

The ruling drew fire from House Republicans. Along with ignoring work by the commission that developed the state's new funding formula, "and besides ignoring the clear delineation of the separation of powers, this activist court just threw out more than 150 years of jurisprudence," said spokesman Steve Miskin.

"This decision should be very alarming for all Pennsylvania taxpayers and communities."

A change to Pennsylvania's funding structure could be a game-changer for perennially funding-challenged Philadelphia, the state's largest district. Mayor Kenney hailed the ruling as "great news for our children, for this city, and for the Commonwealth."

Philadelphia's financial situation has improved slightly since the suit was filed, said Sheila Armstrong, a district parent and petitioner in the lawsuit. But her two children, a third grader at Spring Garden Elementary and a sophomore at Mastbaum High School, still don't have textbooks to take home, and their teachers must dip heavily into their own pockets to equip classrooms.

"They're not meeting the needs of the students," Armstrong said of the district and of the state, its primary funding source.

While there is no requirement for how quickly the trial court must hear the lawsuit, lawyers said Thursday they would ask the court to move as swiftly as possible.

"I'm ready," Armstrong said. "I'm hype to get this going."