Education Funding

Pennsylvania School Funding Is Unconstitutional, Judge Says. Here’s What Could Happen Next

By Mark Lieberman — February 08, 2023 6 min read
Stock image of a gavel on top of a pile of money.
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The fifth most populous U.S. state fails to adequately fund K-12 schools so that all of its 1.7 million children can access a high-quality education, a judge ruled Tuesday.

The decision in Pennsylvania came six months after a landmark school funding trial that drew nationwide attention, and nine years after the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center filed the original lawsuit on behalf of school districts alleging systemic funding inequities.

Advocates and school district leaders greeted this week’s news with elation. “It’s a clear and unequivocal victory for all children, because the court concluded that education is a fundamental right,” said Maura McInerney, legal director for the Education Law Center.

But what comes next is uncertain. The judge didn’t lay out a specific path forward for policymakers to follow, and rulings in school funding lawsuits elsewhere haven’t always prompted the sought-after changes to school funding.

The case, however, will provide plenty of fodder for future school funding litigation, especially because the judge provided such a detailed analysis tackling the question of whether Pennsylvania students actually receive the education the state constitution entitles them to, said Michael Rebell, executive director of the Center for Educational Equity at the Columbia University Teachers College, which tracks legal cases on school funding nationwide.

“The actual decision went beyond my expectations,” Rebell said. “This was just an absolutely outstanding job.”

For chronically underfunded districts, though, many unanswered questions remain.

“Right now it’s great to know that we’ve all been impaired,” said Matthew Lentz, chief financial officer and board secretary for the suburban Upper Moreland district near Philadelphia. “Now, when are we remedying it?”

Here’s why the case matters, and what might happen next—including the possibility of more lawsuits along these lines in other states.

What will the state do?

Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s decision sprawls across nearly 800 pages dense with detail on the condition of schools in the state. She includes testimony from district leaders who highlighted lackluster conditions in school buildings, lamented widespread problems like outdated textbooks and insufficient classroom space, and said school leaders frequently have to make funding decisions they know will put some populations of students at a disadvantage.

Photographic exhibit of 2 young students and their educator working in an ad hoc classroom in the hallway of a public school.

The judge’s decision credits students who “bravely testified” during last year’s trial and district officials who “passionately spoke” about struggling to serve them. But nowhere does she articulate how the state should rework its education spending.

David Backer, an associate professor of education at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, on Twitter Wednesday outlined a few precedents for what could happen, drawing on past lawsuits challenging states to meet constitutional obligations for providing an adequate education for all students.

In the late 1990s, Vermont addressed a similar finding from a judge by implementing an entirely new model for school funding, with the goal of equalizing it across the state.

New Jersey in the 1970s, by contrast, took no action after a judge ruled the state’s approach to funding schools was unconstitutional. The state, however, later changed its stance and made a wide range of investments—including full state funding of facilities improvements and a revamped state funding formula—as the result of a set of court rulings in the 1980s and 1990s known colloquially as the Abbott rulings.

Is Pennsylvania likely to act?

In Pennsylvania, the state’s newly elected Democratic governor, Josh Shapiro, petitioned in support of the plaintiffs last year while he served as the state attorney general. And Democrats in special elections on Tuesday secured a majority in the state House of Representatives—marking the first time the party has controlled the chamber in a dozen years.

Both developments are promising for those hoping that the state will act on Jubelirer’s ruling and revamp how it funds its schools. Shapiro and numerous Democratic lawmakers have publicly backed the lawsuit, while many state Republicans have challenged it. During the trial, an attorney for then-state House Speaker Jake Corman, a Republican, pressed a district superintendent on whether students needed to take high-quality math and science classes to prepare for a career at McDonald’s.

Still, school funding fights are often contentious even after a judge weighs in. North Carolina lawmakers refused to budge last year after a judge ordered them to invest billions of dollars in schools to make up for longstanding shortfalls. And in New Jersey, the landmark series of Abbott rulings prompted changes that the state is still implementing.

Will the defendants appeal?

Possibly. Lawyers for plaintiffs said before the ruling that they expected an appeal if the judge sided with schools. That case would go before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Defendants have until March 9 to appeal.

How might school districts benefit?

In the short term, school officials and their advocates can point to this ruling in their effort to make a case for greater investments in K-12 schools. Advocacy groups and organizing campaigns can also use the ruling to push for robust improvements in areas like school facilities, supplemental instructional programs, and teacher pay.

In the longer term, a concerted effort to reform the state’s model for school funding could result in more revenue for districts with large shares of high-need students.

Rebell, the school funding litigation expert, said the Pennsylvania judge is making a strong case for ensuring students can access an education that does more than meet minimum standards. The judge sided with plaintiffs who argued that the state doesn’t provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education” that adequately serves all students.

“This has to be not just a little bit more money,” Rebell said. “It has to be enough to provide meaningful opportunities for these kids.”

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What are the potential pitfalls?

If the state moves forward with a plan to invest in financially struggling schools, Lentz worries that districts that have been temporarily shielded during the pandemic from the financial losses that come with declining enrollment could suddenly lose money. Any plan to address funding inequity has to keep in mind the importance of ensuring all schools have stable and consistent funding from the state, said Lentz of Upper Moreland.

“In your own family, if you get a bonus you can go on a weekend trip right away,” Lentz said. For schools, though, “it’s more complicated than that.”

Developing intricate systems for funneling money from the state to schools and navigating complex federal and state spending regulations can take time and require careful attention to detail. Legislative attempts to direct more funding to schools in low-wealth areas can also rankle districts in higher-wealth areas.

What might happen in other states?

Advocates in recent decades have found state-level lawsuits to be the most fruitful avenues to push for school funding reform. That’s in part because the U.S. Constitution includes no mention of a right to education, whereas nearly all state constitutions do.

Lawsuits alleging similar problems with school funding are underway in at least four other states—Arizona, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Wyoming. Historically, districts have triumphed in roughly 60 percent of those cases, while courts have largely dismissed the other 40 percent, arguing that weighing in on lawmakers’ spending decisions is beyond their purview.

Rebell said the Pennsylvania ruling, which digs into whether students actually receive an adequate education, could signal to other states that it’s appropriate for courts to weigh in on education funding disputes.

“It may get across to some of the judges in some of these other states that maybe they do have a responsibility to at least let their trial courts take a look at the evidence and not just cavalierly dismiss the serious harm that’s being done in these states,” Rebell said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2023 edition of Education Week as Pennsylvania School Funding Is Unconstitutional. Here’s What Could Happen Next

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