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PA Supreme Court Allows School Funding Challenge to Proceed

Charles J. Klitsch, Esq. on 11/7/2017

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In Johnstown, the roof over the middle school's auditorium is collapsing, and plaster is falling from crumbling walls and ceilings. Meanwhile, in Tredyffrin-Easttown, music will fill the air of the high school auditorium this fall as many of the school's 10 musical organizations present concerts under the guidance of nine faculty members.

In the William Penn School District, textbooks are so out of date that they do not match state curriculum requirements and high school students cannot bring text books home because if they are lost, the school will not be able to replace them. Meanwhile, in Lower Merion School District, all kindergartners and first-graders have access to iPads and all high school freshmen are issued laptops to use as their own during their high school years.

It is not for want of trying that these deprivations exist in our poorest communities. Tax millage rates in the most impoverished school districts are often two times the rates in districts such as Tredyffrin-Easttown or Lower Merion. But the collapse of a once-thriving industrial economy has left many school districts with decimated tax bases. On their own, these school districts are unable to generate sufficient funds to provide students with the comprehensive education necessary to succeed in a Twenty-first Century economy.

For hundreds of years, an education was the exclusive privilege of the wealthy. That began to change in the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth Centuries for two reasons. First, the belief took hold that an educated populace would be the greatest defender of democracy. Second, a rapidly changing economy demanded that more workers should know how to read and to perform basic mathematical calculations.

These factors led to the inclusion of an education clause in the Pennsylvania Constitution. The clause itself evolved over the years. The current version of the education clause was drafted for the 1968 overhaul of the Pennsylvania Constitution and states, “The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

When the 1968 Constitution came into effect, Pennsylvania was enjoying the benefits of a prospering economy. Beginning in the 1970s, however, steady deindustrialization led to a weakened tax base in some cities, while others continued to thrive. Disparities in wealth between communities escalated rapidly. Faced with this growing crisis, one would think that the Commonwealth would step in with greater support to equalize the burden on taxpayers while ensuring that every student receives a quality education. In fact, the opposite has occurred. Commonwealth appropriations have dropped from more than half of all expenditures for public education in the early 1970s to around one third today.

Against this backdrop and with the support of the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center, a consortium of students, parents, school districts and organizations with an interest in quality education brought a civil action in Commonwealth Court against the Governor, the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the Speaker of the House, the Secretary of Education and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief aimed at rectifying what they allege are constitutional deficiencies in Pennsylvania's system of public education arising from the General Assembly's failure to support and maintain the thorough and efficient system of education required by the education clause.

The plaintiffs allege that Pennsylvania's school funding system is flawed on its face in its failure to ensure, in tandem with local funding, that each school district has the resources necessary to provide an adequate education. Plaintiffs further allege injuries that an inadequate educational system has caused to students and their parents or guardians.

Plaintiffs claim that the current hybrid method of state and local funding of public education violates both the education clause and the equal protection clause of the Pennsylvania Constitution.

Defendants filed preliminary objections, arguing that the method of funding public education is a political question and is not justiciable. Commonwealth Court agreed and dismissed the action.

On appeal, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court identified two issues for review:

First, where a petition alleges that the legislature's school funding scheme bears no relationship to the actual cost of preparing students to meet state academic standards, does the political question doctrine bar the judiciary from considering whether the legislature has complied with its constitutional duty to support a thorough and efficient system of public education?

Second, where a petition alleges gross and irrational disparities in school funding between low-wealth and high-wealth school districts, does the political question doctrine preclude students in low-wealth school districts from asserting an equal protection claim to protect their individual constitutional rights?

In considering these questions, the court engaged in a critical analysis of previous Pennsylvania court decisions interpreting the factors outlined in Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 278 (1962), for determining whether the political question doctrine precludes the justiciability of a matter. The Supreme Court found the application of the Baker factors in previous cases to be seriously flawed, necessitating a fresh look at how the factors are applied.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court's thoughtful reconsideration of the Baker factors, together with its careful evaluation of the questions presented on appeal are reflected in the well-written opinion by Justice David Wecht. Without question, the gravity of the underlying concern in this case – the adequacy of the education of our children – was foremost in the minds of the Justices. Read the full opinion here.

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