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Pennsylvania looks for better funding allocation for its poorer districts, eliminating inequities.
Pennsylvania looks for better funding allocation for its poorer districts. Photo: Ben Hasty/Media News Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images. inequities.

Filed eight years ago, the landmark court case on PA’s school funding comes to a close

“Inadequate,” “inequitable,” and “illogical” is what lawyers for petitioners said about the state’s school funding system, which concluded on Tuesday, July 26.

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More than eight years after filing the lawsuit, and eight long months of a trial, parents, students, and organizations see an end as the landmark hearing of the reshaping of Pennsylvania’s public school funding came to a close. 

The court wrapped up on Tuesday, July 26, as lawyers for the petitioners delivered closing arguments in a Harrisburg courtroom before Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer. 

In their arguments, lawyers said the commonwealth’s public school funding system was in violation of its own constitution calling it, “inadequate,” “inequitable,” and “illogical.” 

At the heart of the issue, despite a constitutional obligation to meet student needs educationally and financially, the failure of the state comes from its inability to allocate funds properly to less wealthy districts like Philadelphia and William Penn, in Delaware County, where there are the most students in need compared to other districts in the state. In those other districts, funds that come through property taxes give advantage to the wealthy. 

It has led many to point towards discrimination, as teachers, students, and administrators complain of overcrowed classrooms, crumbling buildings, lack of staff, and not enough overall support in those poorer districts. 

Lawyers for the defendants, Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, argued that the state was meeting its constitutional requirements, and pointed to statistics like the average per-pupil spending, which was top 10 in the country. Even with that, the state has the biggest gap between wealthy and low-wealth districts. 

Also at the heart of the issue is whether an education is at all constitutionally guaranteed. Corman’s lawyer said the constitution “does not confer a right to receive an education,” but that instead, the legislature is only required to provide a system of public schools. Another lawyer for Corman, Thomas DeCesar, asked the judge to only look at what the school provides instead of the results that the resources produced. 

“Outcomes are widely impacted by out-of-school factors,” said DeCesar. “Judging the system of education based on those outcomes, which reflect much more than what is going on in the system of education, would mean that the General Assembly is responsible and school systems are responsible for things they cannot control.” 

When asked about the lack of heating and air conditioning in many buildings he responded: “I don’t believe I recall testimony about any school building not having heat.” 

He continued by saying “almost all, if not all” air-conditioning problems “were being remedied.” More than half of the school buildings in Philadelphia, for example, do not have air conditioning at all. This comes on the heels of the recent high temperatures that have hit the Northeast hard, with hotter Summers to come. 

According to the district’s Chief Financial Officer, Uri Monson, if Jubelirer were to weigh in favor of the plaintiffs and allow for more money to be allocated to poorer districts, huge districts like Philadelphia would benefit greatly by getting more than $400 million in funds for many schools that desperately need them. 

Arguments lasted all day Tuesday and a decision from Jubelirer is not expected to be made anytime soon. It could be months before a decision is made and whatever final result is, it could be appealed to the Supreme Court, which is on break until November. The plaintiffs include parents, six different districts, the state conference of the NAACP, and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. Governor Tom Wolf is also a party in the suit.

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