The Phoenix

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.

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