by Marley Parish, Pennsylvania Capital-Star
Attorneys for the six school districts represented in a landmark school funding case on Monday celebrated the passing of a deadline to appeal a court decision that declared Pennsylvania’s K-12 funding model unconstitutional.
Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward, R-Westmoreland, and House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, had until midnight Friday to appeal Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s decision in the landmark school funding case, issued February in a 786-page ruling after a four-month trial in a landmark case filed in 2014. The deadline passed without a challenge from GOP leadership, attorneys for the petitioners said.
Education advocates hope this clears a path for Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro — who previously said GOP leaders privately indicated they wouldn’t appeal — and lawmakers in the General Assembly to develop a new funding method.
“It’s time for leaders in Harrisburg to work together to comply with the court’s ruling,” Panther Valley School District Superintendent David McAndrew told reporters on Monday.
Throughout the trial, attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center, and O’Melveny & Myers, a law firm that dedicated a pro bono team to the case, argued that the current funding system, which relies heavily on local property taxes, has resulted in disparities between low-income and wealthy districts, arguing that schools are underfunded by at least $4.6 billion.
Cohn Jubelirer concurred with the petitioners, writing that students living in poor school districts with low property values “are deprived of the same opportunities and resources” as those living in wealthy school districts with high property values. The disparity, she added, “is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective.”
“All witnesses agree that every child can learn,” she concluded in her decision. “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, executive branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this commonwealth.”
In a statement, Ward and Senate Majority Leader Joe Pittman, R-Indiana, said they decided not to appeal, citing a “thorough review of the Commonwealth Court ruling.” They called the decision “an opportunity for meaningful changes.”
“In order to evolve our approach to school funding and ensure fairness for our students, further modifications and an examination of ways to streamline services must be explored,” the GOP lawmakers said. “Engaging in a holistic approach which finds an appropriate balance between addressing the needs of students and respecting the ability of taxpayers to pay the costs is vital.”
Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, previously told the Capital-Star that bringing the funding system into constitutional compliance requires lawmakers to address adequacy and equity.
To her, that means examining all education spending: K-12, career and technical education, and early childhood education. It also requires solutions to address the educator staffing crisis, ensure safe facilities, and equip schools with textbooks, classroom supplies, and technology.
School funding cases in other states — such as Illinois — resulted in new formulas and adequacy targets, which calculate the cost to educate students within a district based on cost factors outlined in an evidence-based funding formula.
“Legislators and leaders must construct a school system that drives sufficient dollars to students with the highest needs,” McInerney said Monday. “It is a system that establishes adequacy targets for each of our school districts to ensure sufficient basic education funding so that children have access to qualified teachers, sufficient staff, and a 21st-century education.”
After the February decision, advocates and educators said they expected a significant downpayment on education in the upcoming budget, which is currently unfinished and nearly one month past the June 30 deadline due to disagreement over a school voucher program.
Though the House and Senate approved a proposed spending plan, it still needs a signature from Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, a Democrat, on the chamber floor before it can move to Shapiro’s desk. Ward has the authority to call the chamber back to session. As of now, lawmakers return in September.
Some bills that direct state funding, commonly called code bills, remain incomplete.
The deadlocked $45.5 billion budget allocates $1 billion toward K-12 public schools, including the largest increase in the Basic Education Funding Formula in state history, totaling $567 million.
McInerney said the spending proposal “doesn’t come close” to bringing the funding system into constitutional compliance but described it as a “starting point that we hope to build upon in the future.” Referencing Shapiro’s budgetary remarks, she added that advocates expect next year’s budget to include even more funding for K-12 public schools.
The legal team also noted that though there isn’t a definitive timeline to address the funding model, they will monitor progress over the next year.
“We are standing by, and we are ready to go back to court as soon as we feel that state lawmakers are not responding to the judge’s order,” Katrina Robson, an attorney with O’Melveny & Myers, said.
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