Pa. school funding lawsuit inches forward, though roadblocks remain

Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg (WITF)

Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg (WITF)

A lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s education funding system inched forward Monday, delivering a incremental victory to the plaintiffs, though potential roadblocks linger.

A Commonwealth Court ruling tossed objections raised by leaders of the Republican-controlled state House and Senate, allowing the case to move forward.

But the court also ordered the parties to present more information on whether the case should be declared moot and what standard of review the judiciary should use if it ultimately reviews the case — meaning there will be at least one more intermediary phase to decide if the case should proceed to a full trial.

That decision could have dramatic implications for Pennsylvania’s public schools.

In 2014, a group of school districts and advocates sued the state, saying the legislative and executive branches failed to adequately fund Pennsylvania’s schools and thus violated the education clause in the state constitution. They also claim the large disparities in spending among rich and poor school districts violates the state’s equal protection clause.

It isn’t the first lawsuit of its kind in Pennsylvania, but it is the first to get this far through the legal system.

During prior attempts, the judicial branch ruled that it wasn’t authorized to cast judgement on the constitutionality of school funding. This time around, the state Supreme Court, comprised by a majority of elected Democrats, reversed precedent in late 2017 and said that it could decide the issue.

After that ruling, State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson) and Speaker of the House Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny) filed a series of preliminary objections that could have resulted in the case being dismissed.

In the years since the plaintiffs filed their original brief, the state legislature established a new school funding formula that directs more aid to districts with more needy students. With the formula now in place, Republican lawmakers believe the basis for the lawsuit has evaporated. The plaintiffs, however, note that only a small fraction of state aid is currently pushed through the formula, and they believe their complaint still stands.

The Commonwealth Court gave the plaintiffs 60 days to “submit factual support” for the argument that the case is not moot.

The justices also want to hear more from the parties about what standard of review they should use when evaluating whether the state’s funding system violates the constitution.

The plaintiffs want the court to decide that the state needs to prove it has a compelling interest in maintaining the current school funding system. The defendants want the court to decide that the state needs only to show that there’s a “rational” basis for the status quo.

One or both of these issues may require another oral argument before the Commonwealth Court.

After that stage, the case could proceed to a full trial where both parties argue the actual substance of the case: whether or not Pennsylvania’s method of funding schools is legal.

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