PA Courts Lacking in Political Courage

Published in the Delaware County Daily Times. April 24, 2015

By Joseph P. Batory, Times Guest Columnist

The decision of Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court (April 21) to dismiss a lawsuit accusing the State of failing to adequately and equitably fund Pennsylvania public schools was no surprise.

Over the years, Pennsylvania courts have consistently lacked the “political courage” to remedy what is a situation of neglect and abdication of responsibility by state government regarding public education funding in Pennsylvania.

The “tired argument” of Pennsylvania Commonwealth Courts in refusing to rule on the school funding issue is that this matter is not in its jurisdiction, but rather belongs with the Legislature. But this reasoning defies the very system of checks and balances built into the American system of government.

On Nov. 10, 2014, six school districts, seven parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference had filed a lawsuit in Commonwealth Court against legislative leaders, State education officials, and then Gov. Tom Corbett for failing to uphold the General Assembly’s “constitutional obligation” to provide a system of public education that gives all children in Pennsylvania the resources they need to meet state-imposed academic standards.

This lawsuit argued that Pennsylvania had violated its own constitutional guarantee of a “thorough and efficient” system of public education for all children. The suit asserted that the state had willfully, consistently, and pervasively underfunded public schools to levels of deprivation that demand remedy from the courts.

The pathetic counter argument from the state’s attorneys was that the Legislature’s only responsibility is to make sure that all school districts have enough funds to stay open. Could it be that these lawyers have not read the Pennsylvania Constitution? Just keeping schools open is hardly what the wording of the Pennsylvania Constitution dictates.

In dismissing the lawsuit, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court has ignored reality. Certainly, the Pennsylvania Courts should not be meddling in the affairs of the Legislature. However, when the Legislature has not met its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of public education over a long period of years, it is clearly time for the courts, as a matter of checks and balances, to step in and order the Legislature to fix the problem.

Pennsylvania’s state contribution to local school district budgets is well below national norms. While the USA’s average state contribution to district budgets is 44 percent, Pennsylvania’s contribution is only 34 percent. Furthermore, as one of only three states across the nation without a fair funding formula, Pennsylvania’s allocation of its education funds favors the politically connected and has compounded inequities among school districts. Public schools in Pennsylvania low-income areas spend $3,000 less per student than their wealthier counterparts, amounting to $75,000 less per 25-student classroom, yet low-income districts contain many more students likely to have higher needs due to poverty, English Language Learner status, or disabilities.

A statewide survey a year or so ago indicated that 75 percent of Pennsylvania’s school districts had reduced instructional programming and many made other cuts, resulting in larger class sizes or fewer librarians, counselors, nurses and paraprofessionals. In 2007, a “costing-out” study commissioned by the Pennsylvania Legislature concluded that the state’s public schools were already underfunded by $4.38 billion and that Philadelphia schools were underfunded by nearly $5,000 per student.

The educational consequences of this underfunding of public schools by the Pennsylvania Legislature have been enormous. Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court’s refusal to intervene is apathetic at best and perhaps cowardly at worst. Commonwealth Court’s inaction directly contradicts high court rulings in some other neighboring states (including New Jersey) with similar clauses in their constitutions in which the courts have stepped in to force Legislatures to live up to their constitutional responsibility.

This lawsuit will now be appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. One can only hope that this higher court will not allow this ongoing travesty of inadequate public school funding by the Pennsylvania legislature to continue.

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­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Joseph P. Batory is a former superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District. He is the author of three books and numerous published articles on the politics of education

 

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