By Joseph Batory Published in the Delaware County Daily Times May 20, 2019
Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court had dismissed a major lawsuit challenging the State system of public education funding in 2015 (William Penn School District et al. v. PA Department of Education et al). It was filed in 2014 by the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations. It alleged that the Pennsylvania’s system of funding public education was violating Pennsylvania’s Constitution, due to significant underfunding and gross disparities in allocations that penalize students in low-wealth districts.
However, on September 28, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the Commonwealth Court decision and delivered a major victory to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students by ordering the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial on whether State officials have been violating the state’s constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education.
The Supreme Court decision asserted that considering this lawsuit will ensure legislative compliance with the Pennsylvania’s Education Clause, which requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. The Court also found no basis to deny consideration of allegations by parents and school districts that the legislature’s current funding discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.
As a result, Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court has recently announced the procedural schedule for this lawsuit challenging the state’s school funding system. Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer issued the order and will oversee the pre-trial proceedings. Before the actual trial, the parties will conduct extensive fact discovery and produce expert reports by October 4, 2019. The parties will then have 60 days to file expert reports and rebuttals to these reports. Motions for summary judgment are due by February 4, 2020.
“We’re very confident that we will be able to prove to the court that thousands of children in our state have been deprived of the education they deserve, and have a constitutional right to receive.” Public Interest Law Center attorney Michael Churchill said.
“We are pleased that the court has set a timeline for bringing this case to trial so that legislative leaders cannot continue to postpone and delay,” said Education Law Center legal director Maura McInerney. “Every day that legislative leaders fail to act is a day that students are deprived of basic resources, and our children who need the most continue to get the least.”
A brief filed by petitioners in the case in July 2018 found that Pennsylvania funding available for classroom expenses in Pennsylvania has declined in the years since 2013, falling by $155.3 million. The analysis from Keystone Research Center economist Mark Price showed that despite increases in State education appropriations, these have not kept pace with rising costs, such as pension reimbursements and inflation. The brief also showed that the funding gap between typical low- and high-wealth districts in Pennsylvania ‒ the largest such gap in the nation ‒ had grown since the case was filed.
“The Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling ruling ensures that our schoolchildren in the Commonwealth will finally have their day in court,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of Education Law Center – PA, which brought the suit along with the Public Interest Law Center and pro bono counsel from O’Melveny & Myers LLP. “We look forward to presenting extensive evidence proving that decades of underfunding and inequity in our public education system violate Pennsylvania’s Constitution.”
“We are gratified by the Supreme Court’s decision and the opportunity to take this case to trial, and we hope it will be a turning point for Pennsylvania’s public education system,” said Brad Elias, an attorney with O’Melveny & Myers who serves as pro bono counsel for the petitioners. “Our goal is to ensure that all children in Pennsylvania have equal access to a thorough and efficient education, and this decision brings us one step closer to achieving that.”
The petitioners in the case are six families, six school districts – William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley – the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.
“Today’s ruling represents a major victory for civil rights across Pennsylvania,” said Pennsylvania NAACP President Dr. Joan Duvall-Flynn. “For too long, access to a quality education has been limited to those who live in the right ZIP code, leading to vast disparities that disproportionately impact African-American and Latino families. This decision presents an opportunity to dismantle barriers that prevent children of color from getting the education they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.”
“While our children struggle in schools without adequate technology, dedicated arts, music, library or physical education teachers, students several miles away attend school in modern buildings with the latest course offerings,” said Jamella and Bryant Miller, public school parents who live in Landsdowne and who are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “The court’s decision means that it’s time for our elected officials to address these devastating disparities by providing the funding our schools require to provide a quality education to our children.”
Many Pennsylvania school districts have yet to recover from the drastic funding cuts of 2011 and still lack basic resources, including updated textbooks, modern curricula and school counselors.
Resolution of this lawsuit is long overdue.