School funding in Pa. is about to go on trial — here’s what you need to know

It’s taken seven years to reach this critical juncture in Pennsylvania’s landmark school funding case. Now, the real arguments begin.

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Fairfax County Public School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility

School buses are lined up at a maintenance facility. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Seven years ago, a group of school districts, parents, and advocates embarked on a legal journey that could upend the way Pennsylvania funds its schools.

This week, those plaintiffs head to court in Harrisburg.

William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al. — colloquially referred to as Pennsylvania’s school funding lawsuit — is among the more complicated and consequential legal fights in state history.

On Nov. 12, petitioners and defendants will gather in Commonwealth Court to argue its merits.

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To prepare you for the upcoming trial we’ve broken down the history of this case, where it stands now, and where it could lead.

The basic legal argument

The petitioners argue that Pennsylvania’s state government has so badly underfunded certain school districts that it has violated the state constitution.

They allege two violations.

First, they say the state has violated a section of the constitution that says the “General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

The plaintiffs also say that the funding disparities among school districts are so great that the state is in violation of its equal protection clause, a provision with similarities to the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Underlying all of this is the fact that, in Pennsylvania, local real estate taxes account for a relatively high percentage of the money spent on public education. Because wealthier areas have more valuable properties, they’re able to raise more money to spend on their schools.

To even this out, the state generally gives more money, per student, to lower wealth districts. Those state dollars can help fill the gap between wealthier and poorer areas.

But the plaintiffs say the legislative and executive branches have not done enough. Advocates often point to the fact that Pennsylvania, according to the federal government, ranks 45th among states in the percent of school funding that comes from state coffers.

The petitioners include the William Penn School District, the Panther Valley School District, the School District of Lancaster, the Greater Johnstown School District, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District, the Shenandoah Valley School District, parents Jamella and Bryant Miller, parent Sheila Armstrong, parent Tracey Hughes, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — Pennsylvania State Conference.

They say the state’s actions have allowed vast disparities to exist, which means lower-income districts suffer without the resources needed to educate some of the state’s most vulnerable students. In addition to staffing and classroom needs, advocates point to deep infrastructure woes in poorer districts that can imperil student safety.

“Nobody’s doing anything. They’re dragging their feet,” said Tracey Hughes, a parent petitioner from Wilkes-Barre. “It doesn’t seem like anyone really wants to address [the inequity].”

The defense argument

The defendants in this case are the leaders of the executive and legislative branches of Pennsylvania’s government.

They’ve argued in prior briefs that Pennsylvania meets its constitutional obligation each year when it doles out money to school districts.

The state constitution, they point out, simply states that Pennsylvania must establish a “thorough and efficient system” for maintaining public education. It doesn’t say the state must provide a certain standard of education. It does not require that a certain number of children must perform on grade level. It doesn’t give any threshold for how many resources such a system would need.

The defendants haven’t said Pennsylvania’s education system is perfect. But they’ve argued that any school funding changes must go through the normal legislative process.

“The question in this case is not whether Pennsylvania’s system of public education could be better,” argued Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman (R-Centre) in a pre-trial statement. “Any system can be improved. Every year, in fact, the General Assembly passes bills that are aimed at improving the system of public education. But imperfect is not unconstitutional.”

Corman also noted that Pennsylvania ranks tenth nationally in total per-pupil spending.

Politically speaking, the most interesting respondent might be Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who has been a major proponent of increased education spending.

Wolf and his administration are defendants here. They initially opposed the case going to trial at all, but later changed their position.

A pre-trial statement by the executive branch details all the steps Wolf has taken to increase funding and distribute it more equitably (more on that below). The statement also acknowledges “that the current system of school funding results in some districts whose per-pupil allocations are significantly lower than students in other districts, with resulting inequities in the current system of school funding.”

The statement does not, however, say much on whether a judicial remedy to these inequities is appropriate.

Cases before this one

Other states — including New Jersey — have been forced to radically redistribute school funds after lawsuits of this ilk. But these are all challenges to state law, not federal, so each case faces different legal thresholds.

The most recent high-profile example came out of Connecticut, where petitioners initially won a major victory that seemed poised to overturn the state’s school funding system. That ruling was later overturned by the state’s supreme court.

This is not the first attempt in Pennsylvania to challenge the state’s education funding system. A 1970s case called Danson, a pair of 1990s cases — one called PARSS and one called Marrero — all failed to reach this stage of litigation.

In both instances, the Pennsylvania courts ultimately ruled that they didn’t have the authority to weigh in on this topic. Money matters like this were best kept to the legislature, the justices argued.

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The evolution of this case

All of that changed in September 2017, when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled, for the first time, that these alleged violations of the state constitution were “justiciable.”

Why did the judicial branch change its mind?

We can’t know for sure. The composition of the high court has changed over the decades, with a notable partisan tilt towards Democrats after the 2015 election. Elected Democrats currently hold a 5-2 advantage.

Going into this case, the plaintiffs thought they had a better shot because in 2007 the state released a study estimating how much money it would take for all students to reach grade-level academic standards. Those benchmarks, they reasoned, would give the judicial branch objective criteria to judge whether districts had enough money.

Ultimately, though, the majority opinion by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court didn’t cite the state study as an inflection point. The justices simply decided that their predecessors had been wrong.

“Judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches,” wrote Justice David Wecht in a majority opinion. “It is fair neither to the people of the Commonwealth nor the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate.”

Important developments since the case was filed

This case was first filed in 2014, when many school districts faced grim financial outlooks due to state budget cuts.

Since then, a lot has changed.

The state’s basic education funding line increased from roughly $5.5 billion to $7.1 billion — a $1.6 billion uptick over seven years. Schools districts also recently received billions of dollars combined through various pandemic relief bills passed by the federal government. That’s led to an unprecedented surge of short-term money.

In 2016, the state passed a funding formula that distributes state aid through a per-student equation — with extra weight given to districts who serve more low-income students. The prior funding system directed state dollars per-pupil toward districts with sustained enrollment declines, based on a “hold harmless” logic.

Add it all up, and there have been substantial changes to the way Pennsylvania doles out education dollars and the amount of money in district coffers.

The petitioners will argue that those changes aren’t substantial enough.

The increase in state aid, they say, is just enough to keep pace with inflation, as well as the rising cost of mandated expenses including teacher pensions, special education, and charter schools. The federal funds, they note, will soon recede. And the funding formula only applies to new education dollars, meaning much of the old system remains locked in place.

Will those arguments hold up in court? We’ll see.

The current stage of the case

It’s been four years since the Pennsylvania Supreme Court said this case could move forward to trial. What followed was a flurry of pretrial motions and arguments — some of them to determine what type of evidence would be admissible.

Amid that came delays related to the global pandemic.

Now we reach the first part of the trial stage, an argument in Commonwealth Court.

The trial is slated to begin Nov. 12, with judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, a Republican on the bench since 2001, presiding. Plaintiffs’ attorneys say they expect arguments to last several weeks.

Then both sides will wait for a decision.

What happens after this trial

However the Commonwealth Court rules, it’s likely the losing side will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court would decide whether to grant the appeal. If it does, we’ll wait for another trial and another decision.

If indeed the Pennsylvania Supreme Court weighs in, the court’s ruling would likely be final.

How this could change Pennsylvania education

The plaintiffs here aren’t asking for a prescription.

What they want is for the courts to tell the state government it has violated the constitution, thus forcing it to make the education funding system fairer and fuller.

In New Jersey, for instance, the state created a system that guaranteed low-wealth districts spent as much money per-pupil as high-wealth districts.

If the petitioners in Pennsylvania are successful, it could lead to a similar remedy. Or the legislature and governor could come up with another way to satisfy their constitutional mandate.

Specifics aside, the plaintiffs hope a victory leads to poorer parts of the state getting more money from Harrisburg.

“It’s [about] low-wealth communities feeling as supported as schools in high-wealth communities,” said Kristina Moon, staff attorney at Education Law Center and a lawyer for the plaintiffs.

And in the long run, the plaintiffs say that more money will boost student achievement and life outcomes, pointing to research that suggests the two are correlated.

If the defense wins, expect little immediate action.

The state government could still change the way it funds schools, but it will not be compelled to do so by law.

Someday, another group of plaintiffs could gather to wage the same fight. But there’s no telling who — or when.

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