GOP accuses judge of overreach in Pennsylvania school funding case

A woman in a green dress stands at a podium and speaks into a microphone while several people hold up signs behind her. The podium has a placard that says “The Campaign For Fair Education Funding.” One sign to the left says “Fund Our Schools.”
Demonstrators at the Pennsylvania Capitol call for additional education funding in 2015, the year after a major school funding lawsuit was filed by six school districts and others. On Feb. 7, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer issued a ruling in the case that the state’s system of funding K-12 is unconstitutional. On Feb. 8, GOP state lawmakers sharply criticized Jubelirer’s ruling and called it judicial overreach. (Samantha Weiss / The Notebook)

In the wake of Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s order to overhaul  Pennsylvania’s system of funding education, Republican legislative leaders accused her of judicial overreach while stressing the need for local control and for monitoring school district spending.

House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler issued a statement Wednesday calling the ruling “disappointing, but not surprising from a state judiciary that consistently identifies itself as a legislature to reach policy gains political allies cannot achieve in the General Assembly.”

Cutler highlighted the GOP position that school choice is the best way to provide equal educational opportunity to all students. 

However, Cutler’s statement did not address whether he and fellow Republican policymakers will appeal the ruling, which could delay changes to the funding system. GOP state lawmakers defended the current system in Jubelirer’s courtroom last year, but the Pennsylvania Department of the Education and the governor, who were also defendants in the case, declined to do so.

In her Tuesday ruling in a case that started in 2014, Jubelirer declared Pennsylvania’s funding system to be in violation of the state constitution’s mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient system of education” for all students because it results in wide disparities in spending between low-wealth and high-wealth districts. 

She said that the inequities demanded not just a redistribution of state aid, but more funds overall, as well as other reforms, and she ordered the General Assembly to fix the problem. But Cutler explicitly rejected that reasoning. 

“Our declining test scores during periods of record state funding have consistently demonstrated that money alone cannot educate students,” Cutler said in his statement. He added that “while supporting public schools, it is imperative that we also provide Pennsylvania families the choice to find educational options that meet the demands of a rapidly changing future.” 

Rep. Seth Grove, the Republican chair of the influential House Appropriations Committee, went so far as to characterize the ruling as a victory for school choice on Twitter. 

With the House now very narrowly controlled by Democrats and the Senate still in Republican hands, it is unclear how — and how quickly — the legislature might move to address the funding system.

Under court rules, the defendants in the case have to appeal by March 9. Gov. Josh Shapiro, a Democrat, will give his budget address on March 7. 

Lawmakers in Harrisburg must finalize next year’s budget by July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. 

Shapiro, who as attorney general filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the plaintiffs, said in a statement that his administration is reviewing the opinion and “determining next steps.”  

Attorneys for the plaintiffs reiterated Wednesday the point that Jubelirer ordered the legislature, and the governor, to take action.

“The court said this must be remedied,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, which along with the Public Interest Law Center and the law firm O’Melveny & Myers represented the six school districts, parents, and advocacy groups that brought the case. 

As for what specific remedies might be, first of all “there needs to be more funding,” said Katrina Robson of O’Melveny & Myers. “But obviously that funding exists because … money matters, and it matters because it provides specific types of resources.”

As examples of additional resources that would help, Robson highlighted tutors, social workers, psychologists, sociologists, better textbooks, and improved facilities. 

“We expect to see that those things will start to change in school districts throughout the state quickly,” Robson said.

Donna Cooper, executive director of Children First who served as a chief policy aide to former Democratic governor Ed Rendell, said in an interview that Jubelirer was specific enough in her ruling that there are no factual grounds for appeal. 

Cooper also said an appeal could drag out the process of revamping state school funding for two years.  “How tragic is that? For two years the system is left to continue to deprive students of their constitutional rights,” Cooper said of that possibility.

Attorneys for Cutler and former Senate Republican leader Jake Corman argued during the 49-day trial last year that more funds for schools do not correlate to better student achievement But Jubelirer, a Republican, rejected that argument in her nearly 800-page ruling.

“Educators credibly testified to lacking the very resources state officials have identified as essential to student achievement, some of which are as basic as safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn,” she wrote. “Educators also testified about being forced to choose which few students would benefit from the limited resources they could afford to provide, despite knowing more students needed those same resources.”

She went on to cite evidence presented at the trial “demonstrating wide achievement gaps on the state assessments between students who attend schools in a low-wealth district and their peers who attend schools in a more affluent district.” 

The case is William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in Philadelphia. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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