A Commonwealth Court judge declared the state’s system of school funding unconstitutional on Tuesday. Surprisingly, voices on both the right and left are declaring it a victory.
The education clause in the state constitution mandates “every student receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially and civically,” Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer wrote. “That requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education…Students who reside in school 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…students in low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law.
“All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the legislature, executive branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth,” Jubelirer wrote in her 786-page opinion.
The case was brought in 2014 by school districts with the William Penn School District as the lead plaintiff along with parents and public interest groups. At the crux was the claim students in poorer districts were not receiving the education guaranteed them under the state constitution. Pennsylvania school districts are funded primarily through property taxes with additional funding from the state and federal governments.
“In a historic victory for students, a judge has declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional,” The Public Interest Law Center in Philadelphia, which represented the plaintiffs, said in a statement. “We proved that the students who need the most have the least because the state shortchanges low-wealth communities. It’s time to change that.”
Democrats in the Pennsylvania House praised the decision.
“Today, we celebrate a historic decision that paves the way to honor Pennsylvania’s commitment to our children, our communities, and the future of our commonwealth,” said Nicole Reigelman, spokesperson for the House Democratic Caucus. “For too long, schools in our most underserved communities were shortchanged, and we failed to meet our moral and constitutional obligation to our students, communities, and our shared future. We can’t undo the years of insufficient funding, but as a result of this historic decision, the future is brighter for our students and our communities.”
As Attorney General, Josh Shapiro filed an amicus brief on behalf of the lawsuit challenging the state’s education funding system. As governor, however, he offered a more measured response than some of his fellow Democrats, saying his administration will have to review the ruling.
But he echoed his previous statements. “I believe every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment, regardless of their Zip code.”
Pennsylvania ranks in the top 10 for per-pupil spending on public schools, averaging $17,142 per student. That is significantly higher than the national average of $13,494. Conservatives use that figure to argue the problem isn’t funding, but how and where the tax dollars are spent. Judge Jubelirer specifically ruled that the solution doesn’t have to be more spending overall, just that the school system meet the state’s constitutional mandate of the opportunity to succeed.
Which is why some on the right are declaring the ruling a victory for school choice.
“Commonwealth Court Judge just ruled we need more school choice in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to ensure every child has the same opportunities no matter their ZIP code! Huge school choice victory!” tweeted Rep. Seth Grove (R-York).
“The court is right to affirm that the current system of education funding is flawed—but thankfully stopped short of mandating more money to a broken system, and left it to the legislature and executive branches to find a solution,” added Nathan Benefield, senior vice president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a free market think tank. “The only way to ensure that ‘every student receives a meaningful opportunity’ is for education funding to follow the child. Students that are trapped in their ZIP-code assigned school—especially in low-income and minority communities—often have no alternatives when their academic or social needs are unmet.”
Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman (R- Armstrong/Indiana/Jefferson/Westmoreland) said his caucus “is committed to prioritizing education empowerment and access for students across Pennsylvania, as is evidenced by a historic level of investment in public education included in the current 2022-23 and prior state budgets. Our system has always sought to support state and local taxpayers, whom we will continue to respect moving forward as we address all needs of the commonwealth.”
Guy Ciarrocchi, former president of the Chester County Chamber and a Republican who ran for Congress said, “Whenever we talk about students, our focus should be whether they are succeeding—learning the information and skills to succeed. All too often, the politicians fight about money and power. Why don’t they ever talk about whether the schools are working? Let the money follow the students. Then parents will make sure money gets to schools that work.”