Pennsylvania’s highest court is sending the question of whether the state has failed in its obligation to provide an adequate education back to the Commonwealth Court.
The state Supreme Court’s 5-2 ruling Thursday reverses the lower court’s 2015 dismissal of a petition filed by parents, education advocates and a half-dozen school districts in the state, including the William Penn School District.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s landmark decision today vindicates the principle that adequate and fair school funding is a constitutional mandate, not a political issue,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center. “Now that the court has ruled that education funding is subject to judicial review, we hope the governor and Legislature will work with us and our partners to bring Pennsylvania into constitutional compliance by ensuring that every school has adequate resources.”
The case was dismissed on preliminary objections from the respondents, which include Gov. Tom Wolf, Senate President Pro Tempore Joseph Scarnati, House Speaker Michael Turzai, the state Board of Education and Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera, but now heads back to Commonwealth Court for a full trial. If successful, the petitioners could drastically reshape how schools in Pennsylvania are funded.
“This is vindication that what we’ve been so upset about for so long is accurate, and we look forward to our day in court for our kids and for our communities,” said William Penn School District Board Member Jennifer Hoff. “This is what we’ve been praying for for a long time.”
The suit accuses state officials of violating the Education and Equal Protection clauses of the state constitution by underfunding low-income school districts to the extent that students there could not meet state standards set by the Legislature.
The petitioners claim that total education expenditures range between $9,800 per student in school districts with low property values and incomes to more than $28,400 per student in wealthier districts, an “unconscionable and irrational funding disparity (that) violates the Equal Protection Clause.”
While students in wealthier districts have the advantage of access to current technology, up-to-date textbooks, and dedicated arts and music programs, many lower income schools have had to cut programs and services to the bone in recent years due to funding issues.
William Penn alone has eliminated 57 teachers, five administrators, and 12 support staff, according to the opinion. None of the district’s schools employs a full-time guidance counselor; it has eliminated one librarian position; and in 2011 it eliminated all of its reading specialist positions.
“Families like ours have a disadvantage simply because of our zip code,” said Jamella Miller, a Lansdowne parent and plaintiff in the suit. “It’s just unfortunate that students that are just … miles away are able to get everything that they need and plus more in excess that our students aren’t able to get.”
The crux of the case lies in a clause of the state constitution that requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Though similar prior challenges have been unsuccessful, the petitioners here were able to point to a costing-out study that outlined specific dollar amounts needed to bring Pennsylvania schools up to academic standards that were adopted by the Legislature.
The Commonwealth Court unanimously rejected that argument in 2015, however, finding the petitioners raised “nonjusticiable political questions” that can only be addressed by the state Legislature. The costing-out study and adoption of statewide academic standards did not preclude application of that standard here, the Commonwealth Court found.
But Justice David N. Wecht, writing for the Supreme Court majority, found that it is “a mistake to conflate legislative policy-making pursuant to a constitutional mandate with constitutional interpretation of that mandate and the minimum that it requires.”
“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,” according to the opinion. “…We cannot avoid our responsibility to monitor the General Assembly’s efforts in service of its mandate and to measure those effects against the constitutional imperative, ensuring that non-constitutional considerations never prevail over that mandate.”
Wecht wrote that it remains for the petitioners to substantiate their claims in court, “but (they) are entitled to do so.”
Chief Justice Thomas Saylor said in a dissenting opinion that legislation enacted by the General Assembly is presumed to be valid and should only be overturned if it clearly violates the state constitution.
“Because the General Assembly is institutionally better suited to understand and respond to those concerns than the judiciary, academic standards, which necessarily must change over time, do not provide a judicially manageable mechanism for oversight,” Saylor wrote.
Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, cheered the decision as a way to ensure access to a fair education system.
“This ruling validates my long-held position that the commonwealth must further examine the equity and adequacy of public school funding,” he said in a release.
But Turzai spokesman Steve Miskin said the opinion overturns more than 150 years of court decisions.
“You have a court that is not just trying to interpret the law, but they’re trying to legislate,” Miskin said.
Dolores McCracken, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said a lot of progress has been made in recent years to shore up education funding gaps, but lawmakers need to make public school funding a top priority.
“With today’s decision, the courts may end up getting involved in resolving this issue, but elected officials shouldn’t wait,” said McCracken. “We know that we need to invest more in our public schools. The fact is that Pennsylvania is currently 46th in the nation in state funding of public schools and dead last in equity. Working together, lawmakers, educators, taxpayers and concerned citizens can make school funding a priority, give schools the resources they need and give students the education they deserve.”
– The Associated Press contributed to this report.