Judge deems Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional

The judge said students who live in school districts with low property values and incomes do not get the same opportunities and resources as those in high-income districts.

Listen 5:47
File photo: In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa

File photo: In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

A judge declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional Tuesday, a historic decision that should transform the way the state funds public education.

The lawsuit filed by multiple school districts, parents, and advocacy groups in 2014 argues the state’s funding of K-12 education is inadequate to the point that it violates its constitution.

Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, a Republican, agreed.

Jubelirer said petitioners demonstrated “manifest deficiencies” between low- and high-wealth districts over the course of the more than three-month trial, which wrapped almost a year ago.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

“Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes,” Jubelirer wrote in her 786-page decision.

“As a result of these disparities, petitioners and students attending low-wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.”

Jubelirer said in order to comply with its constitution, Pennsylvania must provide the resources necessary for all students to access a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” system of public education and a “meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

The commonwealth provides only about a third of public school funding, potentially underfunding schools by as much as $4.6 billion, by one assessment. The majority of a district’s funding comes from local property taxes, which can vary widely based on the wealth of a community.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, described the ruling as an earthquake that will “reverberate for the children of Pennsylvania for a long, long, time.”

“Every parent in Pennsylvania knows that their children are worth just as much as everyone else and today, the court made clear the Pennsylvania constitution agrees,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said.

In terms of next steps, Jubelirer said the court is in uncharted territory and that the options for reform are “virtually limitless.”

“It seems only reasonable to allow respondents, comprised of the executive and legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein,” she said.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

The decision is expected to be appealed by at least one of the suit’s defendants, which include Pennsylvania’s governor, its secretary of education, and the leaders of the state Legislature.

“All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the legislature, executive branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth,” Jubelirer said.

Urevick-Ackelsberg said a constitutionally compliant system is one in which every superintendent has the resources they need to meet each individual student’s needs.

“If a kid needs a reading specialist to meet state standards, they get the reading specialist,” he said. “If a student needs a counselor to help them work through social emotional issues, they get the counselor.”

He said the plaintiffs will work closely with defendants to make sure they create a constitutionally-compliant system as quickly as possible.

“We don’t anticipate waiting years for that system,” he said.

Urevick-Ackelsberg said the first thing the legislature can do is make a “significant down payment” in reforming the system during its next budget cycle. In addition to allocating more money, lawyers for the plaintiffs have said dollars also need to be distributed more equitably.

Maura McInerney, another attorney for the plaintiffs, said the defense has a weak case if they appeal.

“The record is very, very clear that local school districts are not adequately resourced,” she said. “I think it would be extremely difficult to be successful on appeal.”

Urevick-Ackelsberg said whether or not the defendants appeal, their obligation to fix the system starts now.

Defendants have not yet said whether they will appeal. Gov. Josh Shapiro, who filed an amicus brief for the plaintiffs as attorney general, said in a written statement that his administration is reviewing the court’s opinion and determining next steps.

Get the WHYY app!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal