PA Judge Finds School Funding System Unconstitutional | KingSpry

Pennsylvania Judge Finds Funding System Unconstitutional: Signals Sea Change for Public Schools  

Posted on February 15th, 2023
by John E. Freund, III

On February 7, 2023, a Pennsylvania judge declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional. This decision comes after years of attempts to rework the system.

What led to this historic ruling and how it will impact your schools?

This decision follows a long bout of legislation in the case William Penn SD et al. v. Pa. Dept. of Education et al., Pa. Commonwealth Court, 2018). William Penn School District filed its complaint in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the legislature’s failure to adequately and equitably fund public education.

In September 2017, the case was remanded to the Commonwealth Court by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The Commonwealth Court ruled in favor of the District in May 2018, overruling objections filed by state legislative leaders. As the case moved towards trial, multiple briefing orders were issued by the Court between 2018 and 2021. 

Trial began on November 12, 2021, and after months of waiting, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer issued a memorandum opinion on February 7, 2023.

The Opinion

The opinion outlines Pennsylvania’s failure to fulfill its constitutional obligations to students. Upon review, the Court answered the question of whether the investment the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has made in its system of public education is in compliance with the Pennsylvania Constitution. 

The Court decided that the Education Clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution requires that every student receive 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. The Respondent, Pa. Dept. of Education et. al., was found to have not fulfilled their obligations to all children under the Education Clause.

Pursuant to Article III, Section 32 of the Pennsylvania Constitution, Respondents are required to provide a system of public education that does not discriminate against students based on the level of income and value of taxable property in their school districts. 

The Court found that Pennsylvania Public School Students who reside in districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in districts with high property values and incomes. The Court ruled that such disparities are not justified by any compelling government interest.

Based upon the foregoing, the Court held that Petitioners and students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law. Therefore, the state is violating students’ rights to a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” education. 

What Does this Mean?

Prominent education advocates claim this decision is “historic” and an “earthquake.” This opinion opens the door for positive change that will alter Pennsylvania Public School funding for the foreseeable future. 

As this opinion receives favorable bipartisan support, it is likely that our legislature will move towards addressing this issue. There is potential for boosts in aid to poorer school districts and equality in opportunities and resources offered to students across all demographics. Upon successful change, it is anticipated that achievement gaps will narrow between poorer and more affluent districts. Educators will no longer have to choose which students benefit from the limited resources they can afford to provide. 

In addition to access of essential educational resources, Pennsylvania School Districts will be able to resize classes to a proportionate level, update textbooks and technology, and provide improved curriculum to students. 

Bottom Line for Schools

According to the Opinion, our legislature must fund every public school in Pennsylvania so that all students receive the quality public education guaranteed in our state constitution. 

But many questions are unanswered, and although this decision is impactful, celebration may be premature. Judge Cohn Jubelirer’s opinion likely faces more judicial scrutiny and legislatures do not necessarily jump when courts snap their fingers. Now is not the time to relax aggressive advocacy for fair and constitutional funding of Pennsylvania public schools.  

If your school has a question, contact your local legal counsel or one of the attorneys with KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group.

School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice.