Education advocates score ‘historic’ legal win

Posted 2/14/23

HARRISBURG, PA — School students in Pennsylvania have the right to an education, a Commonwealth Court judge has ruled, and the current funding system in the state violates this …

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Education advocates score ‘historic’ legal win


HARRISBURG, PA — School students in Pennsylvania have the right to an education, a Commonwealth Court judge has ruled, and the current funding system in the state violates this “fundamental right.”

In her nearly 800-page opinion, judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer brought a measure of closure, at least for now, to an eight-year-long legal battle between the state legislature and a group of parents, school districts and advocates.

In her decision, Jubelirer agreed with the plaintiffs, who have maintained that Pennsylvania’s education funding system—which has been shown to benefit wealthier districts while disadvantaging less-wealthy districts—violates both the education clause and the equal protection clause of the PA Constitution.

“The options for reform are virtually limitless. The only requirement imposed by the Constitution is that every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective and contemporary system of public education,” Jubelirer wrote. “All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the legislature, executive branch and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth.”

While heralded as a major victory for underprivileged students and school districts, the court’s decision is a far cry from the last chapter of the story. In some ways, it’s only the beginning.

It remains to be seen whether Republican lawmakers will appeal the decision to the PA Supreme Court. Even if they do not, or even if the decision is upheld, both the legislative and executive branches will need to find a way to alleviate the entrenched disparities between high- and low-income communities—a tall order that could cost billions.

What the trial was about

Pennsylvania does not contribute as much money toward education costs as other states. The national average is nearly 50 percent, yet PA covers less than 40 percent of public schooling expenditures. That figure placed the state at 44th in the country for education funding, according to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association in 2022.

The rest falls to residents in the form of property taxes. Because school districts in more affluent areas collect higher property taxes, they can afford far better resources than more impoverished districts, where teachers often purchase classroom supplies themselves, and even basic programs and amenities like preschool, libraries and music get cut to keep their budgets in check.

According to Penn State professor Matt Kelly, who provided expert testimony during the trial, PA spends an average of $4,800 less on students in poor districts than it does in students in the richest districts. He further testified that Black and Brown communities are the most deeply affected by these disparities; 80 percent of Black and Latinx students live in underfunded districts.

Pennsylvania passed a fair funding formula in 2016 which promised to more fairly distribute funding based on factors like the number of students per district, and the challenges those districts face. Advocates, however, said the measure was only a “baby step” toward more impactful reforms.

“[The formula] does not address the inadequate amount of funding available to districts struggling to meet state-set proficiency standards. It does not address the vast inequities that exist from district to district,” Public Interest Law Center attorney Michael Churchill wrote in 2016. “Indeed the formula locks in those inequities because it only addresses how new funding is distributed. It never asks what schools need in order to meet state standards.”

What happens now

Advocates with the Education Law Center and Public Interest Center, whose attorneys represented the plaintiffs in court, called the recent ruling nothing short of historic.

“This is an earthquake,” Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a senior attorney involved in the case, said during a press conference. “For too long, [low-wealth districts] have had to triage their students’ needs, leaving some students behind because of the state’s failure to provide adequate funding for public education. Today’s decision makes it clear that this inequitable status quo cannot continue and that every child in Pennsylvania has a fundamental right to receive a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary public education.”

The plaintiffs say that a steady investment of an additional $4.6 billion over time is what’s needed to level the playing field across all districts. GOP lawmakers, who defended the current funding system in Commonwealth Court, however, call the court’s decision “disappointing” and argue that simply increasing funding cannot solve the commonwealth’s educational woes.

“Our declining test scores during periods of record state funding have consistently demonstrated that money alone cannot educate students,” Republican leader Bryan Cutler said in a statement. “Many of our public schools often lack real accountability and have become captured by special interests and bureaucrats who put their needs above that of the students… In fact, some schools have lost their core mission of providing an education and, instead, focus on newer buildings and non-educational endeavors at the cost of meeting standards.”

Many are looking to the state’s new Gov. Josh Shapiro to lead the effort toward reformation. When he was still attorney general, Shapiro filed an amicus brief in support of the underfunded districts and parents, arguing that case’s evidence “all points to the unmistakable conclusion that the General Assembly has not lived up to its obligation to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”

Since the ruling, however, Shapiro’s office has stopped short of making any specific promises or outlining a timeline for when residents can expect to see changes take shape.

House and Senate Democrats have also declined to provide many specifics at this point, but did say “the future is brighter for our students and our communities” as a result of the court decision.

How the region is affected

Different school districts in the Wayne and Pike area—including Western Wayne, Wayne Highlands, and Wallenpaupack school districts—have not been affected by the state’s funding disparities, according to Fund Our Schools PA, which provides an online map of how underfunded per student each district in the state is. Other districts throughout the northeast, however, have not fared as well:

Forest City Regional—$1,700 shortfall per student

Delaware Valley—$1,800 shortfall per student

Lakeland—$3,000 shortfall per student

Valley View—$3,400 shortfall per student

Dunmore—$4,000 shortfall per student

Carbondale Area—$4,800 shortfall per student

Wilkes-Barre area—$4,900 shortfall per student

Scranton—$5,200 shortfall per student

To view how underfunded per pupil other districts are, visit

Pennsylvania, school districts, students, education funding


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