Ruling deeming school funding unconstitutional considered a universal win

The court’s ruling affirms what critics have long claimed – this funding system falls short of its constitutional requirement to provide adequate support.
Judge Signing Papers on Table With Gavel

(The Center Square) – Commonwealth Court declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional recently and, as such, diametrically opposed education advocates all proclaimed victory.

Underneath the surface, however, the factions see little room for each other in a redesigned system meant to connect students – no matter where they live – with the resources necessary to thrive.

Still, there’s hope, they say. In the 786-page landmark ruling issued Feb. 7, President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer said the state fails on its responsibility to adequately fund schools – as evidenced by the wide disparity between poorer and wealthier districts – but that options for reform are “virtually limitless” and extend beyond monetary support alone.

The decision comes eight years after a handful of school districts, parents and advocacy organizations sued the state Department of Education, legislative leaders and the governor over the state’s “inadequate” funding system.

In a statement to The Center Square on Thursday, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association heralded the ruling as a perfect reflection of the challenges facing each of the state’s 500 districts.

The association, which represents 4,500 elected school board officials statewide, said “time and time again” the General Assembly shirked its financial obligations and shifted the burden onto taxpayers, who cover about 60% of the money sent to districts.

The mechanism means poorer school districts often lack the tax base necessary to fill the gaps, even in the face of growing enrollment. The same problem plagues rural districts, where the shrinking population can’t afford to sustain annual property tax increases.

But the current funding formulas don’t address these disparities in any meaningful way. The majority of the $13.3 billion spent on public education in 2021-22 was distributed based on enrollment data from the early 1990s. A smaller fraction, about 20%, funneled through an updated calculation that considers a district’s socio-economic constraints.

The court’s ruling affirms what critics have long claimed – this funding system falls short of its constitutional requirement to provide adequate support.

The school board association said legislators and Gov. Josh Shapiro must now revamp the system to better distribute funding and “hold every single school – public, private and charter – to the exact same standards and accountability.”

“The court ruling is not a green light for some in state government to continue their march to privatize education, or a tacit approval to end property taxes as a vital source of funding for schools across the commonwealth,” the school board association told The Center Square. “It is a recognition that every single child deserves a high-quality education from their local public school district and that every taxpayer deserves to reside in an area with great public schools.”

The Commonwealth Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that advocates for expanded school choice, interpreted the decision differently, pointing to language that says the constitution demands “every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed.”

“I don’t know how a student could receive a ‘meaningful opportunity’ if the only opportunity available to them is a chronically low-performing ZIP code-assigned school,” Nathan Benefield, the foundation’s CEO, told The Center Square on Thursday. 

“It would seem the only way to actually satisfy this requirement is for funding to follow the child to the educational option that provides the best opportunity for their specific needs,” he added.

Benefield said the ruling, on its face, is an obvious win for advocates intent on boosting funding to “certain” districts. He said it also paves the way for litigation on both sides of the debate – those who want more explicit state support for traditional public schools and those who believe such a commitment denies students access to charters or private schools that could better meet their needs.

“If we are just looking at wins and losses, like sports, then clearly the plaintiffs ‘won’ and the defendants ‘lost,’” he said. “But the ruling isn’t so clear cut as the Super Bowl – though they are alike is both sides have complaints about specific calls the officials made.”

Shapiro, who will unveil his first state budget proposal next month, suggested an openness to school choice on the campaign trail last year. While serving as attorney general, however, he did file an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs.

Its unclear whether he or other elected officials or parents will appeal the decision to the state Supreme Court.

Christen Smith
Christen joins The Center Square as its Pennsylvania News Editor and brings with her more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues from all angles. She’s a Pennsylvania State University alumna and has been published in the The Washington Examiner, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, RealClear and Broad+Liberty, among others.

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