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How will Pa. fix its school funding? New Jersey’s ‘Abbott’ rulings offer lessons

To see how complicated the path forward might be, look no farther than the state where battles over school funding rulings have lasted decades.

Supporters of overhauling Pennsylvania's school funding rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg in November 2021, on the first day of a trial challenging the system as unconstitutional. They won their case last week, but the road ahead isn't clear.
Supporters of overhauling Pennsylvania's school funding rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg in November 2021, on the first day of a trial challenging the system as unconstitutional. They won their case last week, but the road ahead isn't clear.Read more

The ruling handed down by a Commonwealth Court judge last week finding Pennsylvania’s school funding unconstitutional was hailed by advocates who say the state has been starving its poorest districts.

But there most certainly won’t be a quick fix. To see how complicated the path forward might be, look no further than New Jersey, where battles over the landmark Abbott v. Burke rulings — and the school funding formula stemming from them — have lasted for decades.

The rulings, which followed a challenge filed in 1981 on behalf of 20 children in several cities including Camden, reshaped New Jersey’s public school system, steering millions in funding to 31 “poorer urban” districts.

But lawyers met with resistance: They had to go back to court, repeatedly, to force lawmakers to pay up. The resulting surge in aid stoked resentment in suburban communities, and lower-wealth districts that hadn’t been designated part of the so-called Abbott group. A decade into the effort, the state moved to scrap the system, adopting a funding formula in 2008 that applied to all districts. Then the Great Recession struck, and the state slashed school budgets.

Although spending has increased, the formula has never been fully funded. And gaps between wealthy and poor districts have also reopened.

How Pennsylvania’s experience might compare in the wake of what will be known as the William Penn decision — named for the Delaware County district that served as one of the plaintiffs — can’t be predicted. Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer’s decision, which found the current funding system violates both the state constitution’s education clause and the equal protection rights of students in low-wealth school districts, leaves lawmakers and the governor’s office to come up with a solution.

That presents myriad unknowns:

Whether officials will file an appeal, taking the case to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. What Gov. Josh Shapiro will propose in his first budget, and how lawmakers will respond. How the state and plaintiffs will agree on what schools should be spending — and what’s required under the standard defined by Jubelirer, that all students have access to “a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” public education system.

“This is kind of like the first shot across the bow,” said Bruce Baker, a school finance expert and professor at the University of Miami. But “without a high court ruling or continued oversight, all the things that may take 15, 20, 30 years to play out ... we really don’t know much of where this is headed at this point.”

The long road of ‘Abbott’

Unlike Pennsylvania, where courts had resisted taking up school funding prior to William Penn, New Jersey was at the vanguard of court challenges to the issue. In 1990, the New Jersey Supreme Court found the state’s funding to poorer school districts unconstitutional.

But it took close to a decade after that “first ambiguous shot” for the court to direct lawmakers to take specific steps, said Baker, a former Rutgers University professor.

The court ordered New Jersey to fund the Abbott districts at the level of affluent suburban districts — which had been able to raise larger sums to fund their schools because they had more property wealth to tax. It also mandated specific programs in the Abbott districts, including high-quality early education — with directives on required class sizes and teacher qualifications.

The rulings also led to the creation of a construction program to replace aging school buildings. More than 200 urban school buildings have been renovated or rebuilt, advocates say. In addition, Abbott sparked a well-regarded public preschool program in low-wealth districts.

“We have actual, real-life policies that we’ve developed” that have been “beneficial in so many ways,” said David Sciarra, the longtime head of the Newark, N.J.-based Education Law Center, who served as lead plaintiffs’ attorney in the Abbott cases.

But the cases also presented political challenges. The word Abbott became “a loaded term with a lot of resentment,” said Micah Rasmussen, director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics at Rider University. While the money “made a world of difference,” Rasmussen said — he attended school in Vineland, an Abbott district — it wasn’t viewed favorably among many suburban voters. For years, he said, elections were fought over “‘our representatives need to go and fight for us ... not the cities, Newark, Camden.’”

There were also complaints around shifting demographics — for instance, Hoboken was an Abbott district but was gentrifying.

The pressure shaped the school funding formula enacted in 2008 under Gov. Jon Corzine, which directed money to districts across the state who enrolled poor students — not just the Abbotts. It “was kind of a political solution — reduce money to the Abbotts to help distribute that across the middle,” Baker said.

The formula, upheld as constitutional by the New Jersey Supreme Court in 2009, was followed by the recession, and marked the beginning of New Jersey’s shift away from one of the country’s most progressive school funding systems. Today, wealthy districts are again spending more than poor ones.

Baker said New Jersey’s formula needs revision. While it directs added money to districts for students from low-income families, students learning English, and students living in areas of concentrated poverty, some costs are likely undercounted, he said.

Sciarra, meanwhile, argued the problem is implementation: New Jersey hasn’t ever fully funded its formula, and doing so would have cost the state an additional $600 million this year.

“That is a big lesson from New Jersey: At the end of the day, it’s the elected officials that are going to be responsible here,” Sciarra said.

Pa. plans to go broader, using ‘every legal tool’

In Pennsylvania, plaintiffs’ lawyers have taken some of those lessons. Among them: “The importance of getting in front of the court early with very specific information” about school districts’ resources, said Katrina Robson, a lawyer with O’Melveny & Myers, who was a pro bono attorney representing William Penn and the five other school districts, several parents — including one of a former Philadelphia student — and two organizations that sued the state. (Also representing the plaintiffs were the Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center.)

The result is a trial record with detailed accounts of what’s lacking: not enough space in William Penn, where one school hosts art and music classes in a basement with a drainage pipe running through it and wires snaking across the walls. Not enough reading specialists in Greater Johnstown or Panther Valley, where the numbers of students needing help prevent one-on-one or small-group instruction.

Creating a specific class of districts that would benefit from the court decision — like the Abbotts — “is not something we are looking to do at this point,” Robson said.

Education advocates are aiming to appeal to a broader group. A key witness for the plaintiffs, Matthew Kelly, an assistant professor at Penn State, testified that 428 of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts are underfunded by a total of $4.6 billion, a calculation he updated from a study ordered by lawmakers and completed in 2007.

“Nearly every school district is underfunded. It is not just what people perceive as underfunded school districts,” said Donna Cooper, director of the Children First advocacy group, who served as policy chief to former Gov. Ed Rendell during the adoption of a school funding formula that was abandoned under former Gov. Tom Corbett.

Cooper thinks the strongest message is the argument that increasing state aid relieves pressure on property taxes, which provide the bulk of public education funding in Pennsylvania. “Everybody has to be very clear that a solution benefits nearly every school district in the state, and every state senator — nearly every state rep — is going to be delivering something at home,” she said.

Pennsylvania’s current funding formula, enacted in 2016, drives more money to districts with more students in poverty, similar to New Jersey’s. But it only applies to a portion of what the state spends on education: Using it to calculate all state aid would mean a redistribution that would cut many districts’ funding. As a result, poorer districts say they aren’t getting increases fast enough.

Some states have taken more aggressive steps to limit gaps between rich and poor districts: Kansas, for instance, has capped what districts can spend.

In Pennsylvania, which has some of the country’s widest spending gaps, “if the state doesn’t step up to ever really fund Philly, Allentown, Reading — it’s not like Lower Merion is going to say, ‘We’re going to wait for you to catch up,’” Baker said.

Whatever path Pennsylvania takes, there may be one clear similarity to New Jersey: Plaintiffs aren’t afraid to go back to court.

If the legislative and executive branches don’t come up with a solution, “we will use every legal tool at our disposal to ensure the fundamental right that now belongs to every child in Pennsylvania” is realized, Robson said.