Court hears oral arguments in Pa. school funding lawsuit

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Pennsylvania’s school funding system is so unfair and inadequate that Commonwealth Court must intervene, advocacy groups told a panel of judges in March.

Six school districts, several parents, a coalition representing rural schools, and the state NAACP are suing the governor and the legislature, charging that too many students are being denied their constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient” education.

The plaintiffs contend that by setting statewide academic standards and requiring that students pass Keystone exams in several subjects to graduate, the state has established the benchmarks for a “thorough and efficient” education.

Previous court rulings had determined that the legislature was responsible for deciding appropriate levels of funding.

“Our argument was that the courts cannot give the legislature carte blanche – that it’s important they be held accountable,” said Michael Churchill, an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Pennsylvania, which, along with the Education Law Center, is representing the plaintiffs.

Attorneys for the state told the judges that the legislature’s only responsibility is to make sure that all districts have enough funds to stay open, which Churchill called a “19th-century” standard.

Pennsylvania’s courts have declined to get involved in school funding cases in the past, deciding that only the legislature can determine what a “thorough and efficient” education requires. But those cases were argued before the legislature acted to impose standards and graduation requirements, said Maura McInerney of ELC.

“Before, the court had no way to benchmark,” McInerney said. “Now they do.”

In addition to setting academic standards, the legislature ordered a so-called “costing-out study” in 2006 that determined how much money each district needs to adequately educate its students.

The seven-judge panel did not indicate when it would rule. Churchill said that whatever the outcome in Commonwealth Court, he expects the case to be appealed to the state Supreme Court.