Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) Pennsylvania Capitol
Shown is the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa., Thursday, Dec. 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Parents, school districts, and organizations say the school funding formula in the commonwealth is unfair and favors wealthier districts. The legislature disagrees and has been fighting the case since 2014.

School districts, parents, and education organizations sued the state of Pennsylvania in 2014 claiming the school funding formula was unfair. 

In her closing statement, the attorney leading that suit, Katrina Robson, referred to Pennsylvania’s constitution, which states that the General Assembly must “provide a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

“Students capable of learning, caught in a system that fails to meet their needs, cannot be considered ‘thorough and efficient,’” Robson said. “One system for one people. It’s time to keep that promise.”

Six underfunded school districts, four parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the statewide Pennsylvania chapter of the NAACP filed the joint lawsuit in 2014, claiming the commonwealth’s unfair school funding system violates the education clause of the state’s constitution.

Defendants in the case include the Pennsylvania Department of Education, President Pro-Tempore of the state Senate, Jake Corman, Speaker of the state House, Rep. Bryan Cutler, Gov. Tom Wolf, the Pennsylvania State Board of Education, and Secretary of Education Noe Ortega. 

Trial proceedings began in November and lasted 48 days, with 41 witnesses and 1,100 exhibits generating 14,600 pages of testimony. Legal briefs and replies can be filed until July 6 and the Commonwealth Court judge’s decision will follow at an unknown date.

At its core, the case revolves around that one sentence in the state constitution: “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.”

The suit does not ask for a specific amount of money to be allocated towards education, but asks the court to rule the state’s current school funding system unconstitutional and appoint the General Assembly to create a more equitable funding scheme.

School Funding in PA

The state contribution to local school district costs ranks very low compared to other states. According to the recently released annual report from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, Pennsylvania currently ranks 45th nationally for state public school funding, at 37.9%. That number is a bit deceptive, however, because the rest of the money comes from local taxes, which creates a huge gap between rich and poor districts. In a poor district like Reading, Berks County, the state’s contribution may actually be 72% of district funding; in wealthy New Hope-Solebury, the state’s contribution only makes up 15% of the district funding. The difference depends on what local taxpayers contribute.

The state contribution has dropped over the years. In 2006, the legislature passed Act 1, which forbade school districts from raising property taxes beyond an index tied to wages. Public school districts are not allowed to build up large fund reserves as a cushion against a rainy day. District spending is further hemmed in by charter school costs as well as an ongoing and expensive pension fund problem.

The state attempted to address this problem with the “fair funding formula,” created by a bipartisan committee begun under Republican Gov. Tom Corbett. This plan considers the needs and challenges faced by poorer districts and creates a formula by which funding to each district could be adjusted to help close resource and achievement gaps. The problem is that until last year, the fair funding formula has only been applied to “new money” added in any given year to the state’s existing basic education subsidy.

The end result has been a state with one of the worst funding gaps between wealthy and poor school districts.

School Funding Lawsuit

Roughly 52% of Pennsylvania’s students get their education in underfunded school districts.

The superintendents of all six school districts that filed the case — William Penn in Delaware County, Panther Valley in Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, School District of Lancaster, Greater Johnstown in Cambria County, Wilkes-Barre Area in Luzerne County, and Shenandoah Valley in Schuylkill County — all offered testimony over the course of the trial. Multiple witnesses highlighted multiple examples of inequities and underfunding and how that leads to over-crowded classrooms, crumbling and inadequate facilities, teacher layoffs, lower test scores, and the absence of thorough course offerings, curriculum, and opportunity.

The defense for the legislators did not deny that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unfair, only that it meets the Constitutional minimum to “serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” and the burden of proving otherwise, falls upon those bringing the suit.

Attorney Tom DeCesar, who represents Corman, made the argument that “thorough and efficient are imprecise terms” and the phrase that matters in the education clause is “to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Determining and serving those needs, he argued, is the responsibility of the General Assembly, not the courts. And if the people of the commonwealth disagree with how the General Assembly is serving those needs, the solution is to vote them out of office.

Districts arguing that they are underfunded, he said, must first show they “have taken all plausible cost-saving measures.”

Sophia Lee, the attorney representing the executive branch, made it clear that in large part Wolf, a governor who has spent all of his two terms in office trying to increase state funding to education, agrees with the claims made in the case by the underfunded districts.

Despite technically speaking in defense of Pennsylvania’s funding system, Lee called the legislators’ defense in the case a “tenuous position,” said testimony by their experts was “not credible,” but added that the enacting of the “fair funding formula” in 2016 “starts to fulfill the promise to children that their educational opportunities need not be dictated by their zip code.”

Regardless of how the judge rules, it is widely expected that the losing side will appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Even if the petitioners are successful, they will still be a long way from their vision of a more equitable funding system.