Landmark Court Decision in Pennsylvania Demands Adequate and Equitable Public School Funding
By Jennifer Grobe, Esq.
Attorney in The Special Education Department
Winter 2023: In a monumental 786-page decision, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled Pennsylvania’s education funding system infringes on the fundamental right to an education under the state constitution. The state’s funding scheme is deficient due to insufficient financial investment and inequitable distribution.
The case was brought before the court by a collection of Pennsylvania school districts, parents, students, and organizations, who petitioned to challenge the Commonwealth’s system for funding public K-12 education. Among the lead counsel in this case were talented attorneys from two organizations which extensively advocate on behalf of children with disabilities, the Education Law Center, and the Public Interest Law Center.
After nearly ten years of civil litigation, the court found the state government “clearly, palpably, and plainly” violated its duties under the Education Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution “to maintain and support a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Moreover, the state government violated the Equal Protection Clause by failing to sufficiently invest in an adequate public education funding system, resulting in wide spending disparities per student between high-wealth and low-wealth districts and corresponding wide achievement gaps. The existing funding system therefore impermissibly discriminated against economically disadvantaged children in under-resourced schools.
The court specifically defined the right to an education as every student being afforded “a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically” with access to a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” public education system.
The Court ordered the Executive and Legislative branches of Pennsylvania’s government, in conjunction with the Petitioners, to develop a plan to address its constitutional deficiencies. While the options for reform are ‘virtually limitless’, numerous strategies to improve student outcomes established during the trial can serve as guidance.
On March 7, 2023, Governor Josh Shapiro announced his first budget proposal to the Pennsylvania General Assembly. He described the court decision as “a call to action” and vowed to work with lawmakers to develop a funding system that provides every student with a meaningful opportunity to succeed.
Governor Shapiro described the $1 billion dollar proposed increase to public education funding as a “significant down payment” toward solving the state’s deficient and inequitable education system. The proposed budget includes:
$567 million (i.e. 7%) increase in basic education funding
$400 million allocation for mental health counselors, special education, anti-violence grants and removing environmental hazards in school buildings.
$23.8 million allocation for investment in workforce training and apprenticeship programs and strengthening skills-building programs
$38.5 million allocation to provide universal free breakfast for all students and to cover the cost of lunch for 22,000 eligible students.
The proposed budget falls short of the $2–4 billion initial investment requested by advocates for the petitioning parties. Additionally, Governor Shapiro didn’t announce new steps to target funding to low-wealth communities. The new budget does not offer any funding for the state’s so-called Level Up program, which the state spent $225 million on last year to provide additional funding to the 100 poorest districts, with the intention of helping to close gaps with wealthier communities. The state has filed post-trial motions which are scheduled to be heard this spring by the Commonwealth Court, however, Republican lawmakers have indicated they do not intend to appeal the Court’s finding that Pennsylvania’s school funding formula is unconstitutional. It is very possible that the final decision in this matter will be made by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in this long-standing but critical matter for Pennsylvania’s children.
“Every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise [to an education] a reality in this Commonwealth.” — Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania