Pa. Court Dismisses Districts’ Challenge to State School Funding System

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 21, 2015 2 min read
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A Commonwealth Court judge in Pennsylvania has dismissed a suit brought by parents, districts, and the state NAACP last year that claimed the state’s system for funding public schools is violating the state constitution.

In dimissing the lawsuit, William Penn School District et al. vs. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., President Judge Dan Pellegrini said that the plaintiffs’ claims were ultimately “nonjusticiable political questions” based on prior court rulings.

UPDATE: In a statement issued soon after Pellegrini’s ruling, attorneys for the plaintiffs said they would file an appeal of the ruling with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court within the next 30 days. They said Pellegrini only dealt with part of the suit’s claims.

As my colleague Denisa Superville of District Dossier reported last November when the plaintiffs filed the suit, the six districts and other plaintiffs said that while they had set forth academic standards for students to meet, the state legislature had failed to give them the resources needed to meet those standards. And they also slammed the state for permitting drastic funding disparities between districts, with per-pupil spending varying by as much as roughly $19,000 from one district to another. A portion of the suit states:

Because of insufficient funding, [p]etitioner school districts are unable to provide students with the basic elements of an adequate education, such as appropriate class sizes, sufficient experienced and effective teachers, up-to-date books and technology, adequate course offerings, sufficient administrative staff, academic remediation, counseling and behavioral health services, and suitable facilities necessary to prepare students to meet state proficiency standards."

The plaintiffs were represented in the lawsuit by, among others, the Education Law Center in Pennsylvania, which said in a statement announcing the suit that the legislature tossed aside a workable funding formula in 2011 and simply let inequities grow.

However, Pellegrini wrote in his dismissal that, “This Court can no more determine what level of annual funding would be sufficient for each student in each district in the statewide system to achieve the required proficiencies than the [state] Supreme Court was able to determine what constitutes an ‘adequate’ education or what level of funding would be ‘adequate’ for each student in such a system” based on precedent. (Hat-tip to the Philadelphia Public School Notebook.)

As I discussed in a story several months ago about Pennsylvania’s school funding system, the Commonwealth State has perhaps one of the most unsettled systems of K-12 finance in the country. A relatively sluggish economy and the absence of a discrete school funding formula, among other problems, have been decried by policymakers and advocates, but solutions have been hard to come by.

Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat elected last year, campaigned in part on a pledge to increase K-12 spending and has proposed a $400 million spending hike. But getting policymakers to agree on proper spending levels in Pennsylvania has been difficult, and acting Secretary of Education Pedro Rivera has already clashed with lawmakers about Wolf’s proposed budget.

A version of this news article first appeared in the State EdWatch blog.