The Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania Tuesday declared that the state’s public education system is unconstitutional due to its inequitable and inadequate funding across districts.
In 2014, six Pennsylvania school districts, along with a collection of parents and advocacy organizations, filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE), the Governor and a variety of legislators. On Tuesday, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer released a nearly 800-page opinion finding that the funding disparities between districts violated the students’ equal protection rights. Jubelirer wrote that the commonwealth failed in its duty to provide all students access to a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” education system. Jubelirer affirmed education as a fundamental right in the commonwealth and ordered that the education system not discriminate based on income and tax values. However, the court left the recreation of the funding system to the legislature.
The lawsuit claimed that the manner of funding public schools in the Commonwealth was unconstitutional because it failed to provide high-quality education to all students. Over the four month trial, more than thirty former students, teachers and education experts gave testimony. The districts argued that the Commonwealth’s failure to provide lower-income students with proper funding violates the Pennsylvania Constitution, which says that the state legislature must provide a “thorough and efficient” public education system. The suit further alleged that the state government has known for a decade that schools were seriously underfunded. The districts’ complaint describes the ramifications of underfunding in schools and for students, citing staff shortages, out-dated technology, and unsuitable facilities.
Low income school districts in Pennsylvania have almost $5,000 less per student than wealthier districts, and the divide is only growing. Many districts are thousands of dollars from the state’s benchmark for public school funding. Pennsylvania uses a variety of sources of school funding, and the PDE distributes a variety of state and federal funding programs. The state also heavily relies on local revenue, collected through taxes and other funding programs. However, lower-income districts pay higher tax rates than wealthier districts and still lack funding.
The Education Law Center, one of the organizations representing the districts, hailed the decision as a “mighty win” for Pennsylvania students. The Pennsylvania House Democrats released a statement commending the decision and recognizing how the Commonwealth failed to meet its obligation to Pennsylvania children. The House Democrats noted that the “future is brighter for our students and our communities.”