School funding lawsuit can proceed, judge rules

Robert Simpson of the Commonwealth Court rejected arguments made by GOP legislative leaders.

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

The landmark Pennsylvania education funding lawsuit can proceed, a Commonwealth Court judge ruled Tuesday, rejecting the argument made by Republican legislative leaders that it has been rendered moot and should be dismissed.

Judge Robert Simpson concluded that the General Assembly’s adoption of a fair funding formula in 2016 did not negate the need to collect further evidence on the petitioners’ contention that the current system violates the state constitutional guarantee that all children have access to a “thorough and efficient” education.

Assembly Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Joseph Scarnati, both Republicans, contended that the case was moot because of the adoption of the formula, which sends districts extra money depending on their level of poverty, number of English learners, taxing capacity, and other factors.

The formula, known as Act 35, is used to distribute only a small portion of the funds. The rest is distributed based on past patterns, along with a guarantee that no district will lose aid from one year to the next.

The case, William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al., was brought on behalf of six districts and several parents. Petitioners are represented by the Philadelphia-based Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center.

This is the first school funding case in Pennsylvania that has gotten this far. The Supreme Court decided in prior cases that the issue was “nonjusticiable,” or a matter best left to the two other branches of government.

This case was originally brought in 2014. In 2016, the Commonwealth Court threw it out, but the state Supreme Court overruled that decision last fall, sending it back to Commonwealth Court for further review and argument.

Scarnati contended that the 2016 funding formula made “significant” changes and that the constitutional challenges “are moot in light of this intervening change in the law.” The petitioners disagreed. While rejecting the crux of Scarnati’s position, Simpson deferred a final ruling on the mootness question pending more developments in the case.

But he added that: “Clearly, a factual dispute about the significance and adequacy of the funding changes … persists.”

“We are pleased that the court has denied respondents’ baseless attempt to dismiss our lawsuit,” said Education Law Center legal director Maura McInerney in a statement. “As the court recognized, our challenge to the inadequacy and inequity of Pennsylvania’s broken school funding system will persist.”

In challenging the legislative leaders’ mootness argument, the petitioners pointed out that that the spending gap between wealthy and poor districts in the state has widened since the adoption of the new formula, which only applies to about 7 percent of all the state aid – and an even tinier fraction of total K-12 education spending, which consists mostly of local tax dollars.

The funding system “still deprives students of the resources they need,” said Public Interest Law Center staff attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, citing “not enough teachers, out-of-date books, and buildings that crumble around the children inside of them.”

The school funding issue became a factor in the gubernatorial race after Gov. Wolf implied in a Philadelphia appearance that he would favor using the 2016 formula on all state aid, not just the new money. If that were to happen immediately, many districts where student population has been dropping, mostly rural ones, would lose millions, and the money would be redirected to places where enrollment and needs have been growing.

Wolf later qualified that he didn’t favor any immediate action on this, but Republican candidate Scott Wagner has been campaigning on the issue, telling mid-state residents that Wolf wants to deprive their children of resources while Philadelphia would benefit. Philadelphia would receive more than $1 billion more annually in state aid if the formula was used on all of it.

No date has been set for a trial on the merits of the case.