Is the Pennsylvania General Assembly adequately funding public education or are its members deliberately violating two provisions of the Pennsylvania State Constitution?
17 June, 2022 by
Thomas W. Bailey
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This is a court case like no other I’ve written about in this blog.  All quotes in this blog are  from either the Public Interest Law Center's FAQs (PILC) or Fund Our Schools PA (FOSP).

Background.  Six school districts are among the Petitioners.  These include William Penn School District (SD), SD of Lancaster, Panther Valley SD, Greater Johnstown SD, Shenandoah SD and Wilkes-Barre SD.  Each SD has a “high proportion of children in poverty and are unable to raise enough money through local property taxes to make up for the lack of adequate state funding.” (PILC)

The Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference are two statewide, non-profit Petitioners.

Finally, four families of children residing in the low income SDs of City of Philadelphia, William Penn, Lancaster and Wilkes-Barre are also Petitioners.

Petitioners are represented by staff attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center.  In addition, the private law firm of O’Melveny & Myers LLP is representing Petitioners.

These parties are suing several Pennsylvania state government officials as Respondents .  “The leaders of the House and Senate, the Secretary of Education and Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the Governor. They are called ‘indispensable parties’ under the law because they each play a role in any remedy that may be fashioned by the court.  Legally they all must be included in the lawsuit.” PILC

 

Issues for Trial: Normally the Commonwealth Court hears appeals from decisions made by local and state government agencies.  In this case however, Petitioners’ requested a trial.  Judge Renee Jubelirer was the trial judge.

 Petitioners requested Judge Jubelirer to declare Respondents’ current system of funding public schools to violate our state constitution.  Specifically, Petitioners allege the “thorough and efficient” Public School System language of Article 3 in the Pennsylvania Constitution has been violated. 

 In addition, Petitioners requested Judge Jubelirer order Respondents to create and maintain a constitutional school funding system to allow public school students to achieve state academic standards while not discriminating against low income school districts.  It was this discrimination that violates the equal protection language in the Pennsylvania Constitution according to Petitioners.

“The state legislature has an obligation to ensure that every student – not only those living in select zip codes – receive the basic resources they need. However, our state provides a smaller share of funding for education than almost all other states. This causes districts across Pennsylvania to be overly reliant on local funding and has created gross disparities between rich and poor school districts. Pennsylvania has one of the widest funding gaps between low-wealth and high-wealth districts in the country. A typical high-wealth school district spends $4,800 more per student than a typical low-wealth school district, and that gap has been growing.” PILC

 

Procedure:  Petitioners filed this action in 2014.  Respondents asked Judge Jubelirer to dismiss the entire case several times.  In 2015 she did dismiss Petitioners, but on appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the Commonwealth Court to hear it.  Twice in 2018 Respondents sought dismissal once again, but both were denied.

 Trial began last fall.  Petitioners’ witnesses took the witness stand beginning on November 15, calling 29 witnesses in total.  For example, in the first week of testimony, the Panther Valley SD Superintendent McAndrew testified for two days.  Next, a Fifth Grade history teacher testified. 

 A Penn State Professor testified about the General Assembly’s funding process.  “Dr. Matthew Kelly, a school finance expert from the Penn State College of Education, shared his analysis of Pennsylvania’s school funding system, which found that its schools are collectively underfunded by $4.6 billion according to a benchmark in state law, and that the state has allowed deep inequities in resources and performance to persist between the lowest wealth and high-wealth schools. He said many school districts lack the funding they need to be able to give their students a chance to meet state standards – particularly low-wealth districts that simply cannot raise enough money on their own.” FOSP

 A South Carolina University Law School Professor testified next about the history of public education within our State Constitution.  I read all this information on the Fund Our Schools PA website.  Follow this link and then scan down to Case Progress for their summary of all witnesses week by week.

 The Respondent Legislators called 10 witnesses.  One of their witnesses was the Chief Executive Officer of the largest cyber charter school in Pennsylvania.  The Respondent Executives called only one.  Witness testimony ended in February, 2022.

 Post trial filings have included Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law. 

 In addition, several “friends of the Court” briefs have been filed by various organizations.  In legal terms, the most notable filings were by State Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the Pennsylvania Federation of Teachers and Pennsylvania State Education Association.

 Petitioners filed their post-trial brief on June 3.  “Respondents in the case will file post-trial briefs on July 1, followed by a reply brief from petitioners on July 15. Commonwealth Court will hold oral argument on the legal issues on July 26 at 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom 3001 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg.

 The court’s decision could come several months after the July 26 oral argument.” FOSP

 The FOSP website is the most up to date website I’ve found.


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