Changing course, Gov. Wolf asks courts to rule on Pa. education funding lawsuit

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has changed his mind regarding a high-profile school funding lawsuit.

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Gov. Tom Wolf tours Caln Elementary School in Thorndale, Pa. (AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)

Gov. Tom Wolf tours Caln Elementary School in Thorndale, Pa. (AP File Photo/Matt Rourke)

Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf has changed his mind regarding a high-profile school funding lawsuit.

More than three years after a coalition of districts and advocates first sued the state, Wolf now says the courts should determine whether the commonwealth’s education funding system violates the state constitution.

And he thinks that decision should come sooner rather than later.

Wolf filed a brief Thursday asking for a case before the Pa. Commonwealth Court to move forward, a notable move because the governor — named as a defendant in the case — initially opposed the landmark lawsuit.

Even though Wolf has staunchly advocated for increased education funding — and even though the coalition that brought the suit includes some of his traditional allies —  he had argued that funding decisions should be left to the legislative and executive branches.

During a 2016 hearing in the case, Wolf’s lawyers were a part of a defense team that argued that “no individual child has any specific right to an education at all” under the state constitution.

They argued that the legislature must only set up “a system” of education in order to be complainant with the law, and that any debate beyond “opening school doors” is a “policy question.”

The state court system has historically agreed that the judicial branch should stay out of education funding debates. But, in September, the Pa. Supreme Court reversed precedent and said the matter was a “justiciable” issue.

That decision propelled the suit into unchartered territory, and Wolf now believes the courts ought to rule on the legality of Pennsylvania’s school funding scheme.

“I think it sends a powerful message to the court and the public that it’s time for this case to be heard,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney for the plaintiffs who works for the Public Interest Law Center. “It’s time for our clients to have their day in court.”

A spokesperson for Wolf said the Governor isn’t flip-flopping, he’s simply acknowledging the new legal reality.

“The case has evolved,” said Wolf spokesman J.J. Abbott. “Now we’re saying we want the case to be resolved expeditiously.”

When the case began, Wolf held the same position as Republican leaders in the state House and Senate. Now those leaders, who are also named as defendants in the case, say Wolf is changing his tune in order to boost his re-election chances in November.

There’s no question this is politically motivated,” said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for House speaker Mike Turzai (R-Allegheny). “There’s no question this [brief] is really a campaign piece written by the governor’s lawyers.”

Turzai is hoping to challenge Wolf for the governorship this fall.

Drew Crompton, a spokesperson for Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R-Jefferson), also described the governor’s position as a political maneuver.

“I think it partly has to do with the fact that it’s an election year and he wants to be advocating for school funding,” Crompton said.

In March, the state Commonwealth Court is scheduled to determine whether the case should be tossed due to preliminary objections filed by Turzai’s and Scarnati’s camps.

Crompton said the state’s new basic education funding formula, enacted in 2016, makes the plaintiff’s arguments moot.

The new formula provides a rational and predictable method for distributing state education dollars. Skeptics note that only a small percentage of state education funds flow through the formula right now.

If the court determines the case can move forward, it will go on to a full trial. From there, an appeal could drive the case back to the state’s highest bench for a final verdict.

Plaintiffs will attempt to prove that the state’s method for distributing education dollars violates the equal protection and education clauses in the state constitution.

The plaintiffs believe Pennsylvania’s funding system does not guarantee a “thorough and efficient” education for the state’s public school students, particularly those in low-income districts that struggle to raise sufficient tax revenue. They believe the state must do more to even out the vast, nationally-recognized wealth differences between Pennsylvania’s 500 districts.

Republican lawmakers say school funding decisions belong to the General Assembly and local taxpayers.

“Pennsylvania taxpayers, they don’t trust Harrisburg to redistribute their money and redistribute their money in a fair, equitable way,” said Miskin.

The plaintiffs and their allies disagree, and they see Wolf’s support as a powerful signal to the judiciary as it mulls the merits of the case.

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