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Pennsylvania's school funding system is unconstitutional, judge rules

Feb. 8, 2023
The judge ordered the state's General Assembly to begin work immediately on a more equitable way to fund public schools.

A Pennsylvania judge has declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional and ordered the General Assembly to overhaul it.

Chalkbeat Philadelphia reports that the ruling marks a victory for school districts and advocacy groups that have worked for decades to achieve adequacy and equity in Pennsylvania’s school funding system.

“Students who reside in school districts with low property values and incomes are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes,” Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer wrote in a 786-page opinion.

“The disparity among school districts with high property values and incomes and school districts with low property values and incomes is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective.”

Jubelirer ordered the General Assembly to begin work immediately on a remedy to bring the state’s funding system into constitutional compliance.

The Education Law Center and Public Interest Law Center, both of which represented the plaintiffs, praised the judge's ruling:

“Today’s decision declaring Pennsylvania’s school funding system unconstitutional is a historic victory for Pennsylvania’s public school children. It will change the future for millions of families, so that children are no longer denied the education they deserve.

"The court recognized that our schools require adequate funding to meet our constitution's mandate. It’s time for our state legislature to fund public schools in every corner of Pennsylvania so all students, whether or not they live in a wealthy community, can receive the quality public education guaranteed in our state constitution.”

The lawsuit, brought by six school districts, two civil rights groups, and several parents, was filed in 2014 and was the latest in a series of such cases. State courts had dismissed all the previous ones, saying that such disputes were a matter for the legislature and the executive branch, not the courts.

Jubelirer heard four months of testimony from teachers, students, and officials from a variety of school districts. They described conditions in which children are forced to learn in closets and hallways and 75 small children are forced to share one bathroom.

Attorneys who represented the plaintiffs called the ruling “an earthquake” that will affect all schools in Pennsylvania for years to come.

Studies presented during the trial estimated that the state would need an additional investment of $4.6 billion annually to provide all students with a “comprehensive, effective and contemporary education.”

Pennsylvania, like several other states, has a clause in its constitution saying that the state must maintain a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” Courts in other states have interpreted this to mean that the funding system must direct more money to districts with students who have more needs.

Jubelier’s ruling stated that “students in low-wealth districts do not have access to the educational resources needed to prepare them to succeed academically, socially, or civically.”

She cited graduation rate differences, college graduation rates, overall postsecondary attainment, and other outcomes as evidence of this.

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