By Joseph Batory
Published in the Concerned Center City Citizens Review April, 2023
It has taken almost ten years for justice to prevail regarding public education funding in Pennsylvania, but it has finally happened.
In 2014, the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center had filed suit charging that the Pennsylvania Legislature had failed to uphold its Constitutional obligation to provide all children with a “thorough and efficient” public education system. The Pennsylvania Appellate Court dismissed the case, but the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revived the lawsuit in 2017.
Just a few weeks ago, with a lengthy trial finally ended, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer has ruled for the plaintiffs. The State of Pennsylvania is “Guilty as Charged!”
Judge Cohn cited the reality that students in school districts with low property values and income levels had been deprived of the same resources and opportunities as children in wealthier ones via arbitrary shortfalls in State funding.
What the Pennsylvania Legislature has done has been an ongoing shifting of its fair share of funding of public education. This has put more and more educational funding needs onto the backs of local communities. Many school districts in wealthier communities were not drastically affected, but the school districts in poorer communities were forced to significantly cut programs as well as raise property taxes. This abdication of responsibility by State (primarily Republican) politicians has created hundreds of underfunded school systems across the State, a tragic apartheid of rich and poor schools. Over decades, the State share of public education funding has gone from 50% to 38%.
As far back as 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer, published a page one independent report from the GoodSchoolsPa organization documenting this ongoing betrayal of Pennsylvania’s public schools and the children they serve over a long period of years by State politicians. At that time (2007), Pennsylvania was already underfunding public education by $4.8 billion (almost all done by Republican legislatures and Republican governors.) And Pennsylvania ranked 45th among the 50 states in the percentage/share of school funding that comes from the State. To make this happen, Pennsylvania had abandoned its funding formula (ESBE) for public education, described by experts as one of the fairest in the USA. The results were devastating. As just two examples, this report summarized that in 2007 Philadelphia’s public schools had lost $1 billion of State funding and nearby Upper Darby’s public schools had lost $54 million of State funding.
Over the years, that deplorable situation of State underfunding of public education has only worsened.
“It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the Constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth,” Cohn Jubelirer wrote in a nearly 800-page ruling.
The Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center said in a joint statement: “It’s time for our State Legislature to fund public schools in every corner of Pennsylvania, so all students — whether or not they live in a wealthy community — can receive the quality public education guaranteed in our State Constitution.”