School funding court ruling is historic win
The fight to bring school funding equity and equal education opportunity to Pennsylvania’s children is not over, fair funding advocates acknowledge, but last week’s Commonwealth Court ruling declaring unconstitutional the current method of funding schools is a major milestone on that path.
The 786-page decision handed down Tuesday was the result of a decades-long effort and a lawsuit brought by six school districts, including William Penn in Delaware County, the state conference of the NAACP, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and several parents.
The case took years to wind its way through court, culminating in four months of testimony and now the decision by Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer. In the ruling, Cohn Jubelirer wrote that students in areas with low property values and incomes “are deprived of the same opportunities and resources” as those in more affluent areas, resulting in wide achievement gaps.
Those gaps were wider for historically disadvantaged groups, including Black and Hispanic students, Englishlanguage learners, poorer students and others, Cohn Jubelirer wrote. The judge said educators testified that they lacked the very things the state has identified as essential to student achievement, such as safe buildings.
The lawsuit had argued Pennsylvania’s system of paying for public schools did not meet an explicit standard in the state constitution that lawmakers provide a “thorough and efficient system” of education. The court’s opinion agreed.
Plaintiffs had presented evidence during last year’s trial that schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate they said does not account for gaps in spending on special education, school buildings and other facilities.
Pennsylvania is regarded as perpetrating the largest school funding equity gap in the nation, as well as being among the lowest in state share of overall school funding.
The impact of the decision is a resounding victory for local educators and parents who have traveled to Harrisburg, written countless letters and testified in court and state hearings on the effects of this inequity. Reporting and editorials in this newspaper and many others have detailed effects of the haves and havenots in Pottstown, Norristown and Reading, in particular.
Those gaps have led to schools with only one guidance counselor, facilities in desperate need of repair, class sizes with more children than textbooks, and a technology gap that became painfully apparent during the pandemic when remote learning required that students have computer access at home.
Stephen Rodriguez, superintendent of the Pottstown School District — underfunded by roughly $13 million a year under the state system — called the court ruling “a major turning point in our history … a momentous decision.”
The ruling does not provide an immediate solution. And, the state Legislature led by the Republican-majority Senate, can appeal and keep the decision in court proceedings for years. But it sets a precedent that we hope will put in motion state legislative work to bring equity into school funding.
A starting point is the fair funding formula developed to address these very issues but never fully implemented in budgeting.
We look forward to the efforts of Gov. Josh Shapiro and Education Secretary Dr. Khalid Mumin, who have seen school funding disparities firsthand. Shapiro’s roots in Montgomery County bear witness to the differences in resources and facilities between Norristown Area School District, for example, and its wealthier neighbors. Mumin was most recently superintendent of Lower Merion, one of the wealthiest districts in Pennsylvania, and before that he was superintendent in Reading, the poorest district in the state. Their observations can be an asset to crafting a funding method that closes gaps.
Past efforts to level the playing field, including ones in this year’s state budget, were only Band-Aids. There has never before been a mandate to overhaul the system, as this court order requires.
Fair funding advocates can take a victory lap. The road to reform is not over, and there will be more twists and turns, but for now, there is cause to celebrate. The future of Pennsylvania’s children has just become brighter.