December 2, 2015
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School Funding Crisis in PA

Harrisburg, PA -- Parents and school districts challenging Pennsylvania's school funding system told the state Supreme Court, on November 30, that it should decide the case on the merits and reject the state's plea to toss the case because of its complexity and difficulty.

In a reply brief filed Monday, the petitioners argued that the courts can and must examine claims that the state is violating its constitutional duty to adequately fund "a thorough and efficient system of public education."

Parents and districts submitted the reply brief as part of their appeal to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in William Penn School District vs. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education. The lawsuit, which was filed in November 2014, claims that the state's system of funding public education is so inadequate and unequal that it violates the education and equal protection provisions of the Pennsylvania Constitution. In April, the Commonwealth Court dismissed the case, relying on older cases which it believed prevent Pennsylvania courts from considering school funding issues, thereby leaving such questions solely in the hands of the political process.

"Without judicial oversight, the legislative process has severely underfunded schools across the state and our children are paying the price," said Maura McInerney, senior attorney with the Education Law Center. "The legislative and executive branches have argued that the courts are powerless to consider these issues, but we believe the judicial branch's duty does not disappear merely because education funding issues are complex and politically charged. In 28 other states court-mandated reforms have had a direct and positive impact on increasing sustained education funding and improving academic outcomes."

Parents and districts involved include: seven parents of children in underfunded public schools, six school districts including William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS), and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. The Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center-Pennsylvania represent these petitioners.

In briefs filed earlier this month, the legislative and executive branches claimed that all education funding decisions --- no matter how extreme, irrational, or arbitrary --- should be protected from judicial review.

"The briefs filed by state officials ask the Court to give the legislature complete immunity from any judicial review, even as our children suffer from unequal and underfunded schools," said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of the Public Interest Law Center. "Even if the political process finally results in a budget which includes a one-time allocation of significant funds for this school year, there is no sign that elected officials will make any attempt to create a funding structure that will enable students to meet the standards the legislature itself has established.  That is why the courts must step in."

Also, the reply brief highlights substantial changes since the last school funding case was dismissed in 1999. Those changes assist the court in evaluating the constitutionality of the current funding scheme, as they include the adoption of content-based state learning standards, assessments aligned with the standards, and an educational cost study.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to schedule oral argument in the case for the first quarter of 2016.  

Related Stories:

Education Law Center Press Contact:

Molly A. Hunter

Education Justice, Director

973-624-1815, x 19

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