Plaintiffs in school funding cases recently scored wins in the highest courts in two states: Kansas and Pennsylvania. Both courts issued forceful and detailed opinions upholding the constitutional rights of children to an adequate education. The Kansas decision is another installment in the long-running school funding case there, while the Pennsylvania Supreme Court permitted a first-ever school funding trial in that state.
On September 28, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruled that the school funding lawsuit, William Penn School District, et al., v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al., could proceed to trial in the Commonwealth Court. The plaintiffs in the lawsuit – six school districts, an association of 150 rural and small schools, parents, children, and the Pennsylvania NAACP – are represented pro bono by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), the Education Law Center-PA and O’Melveny & Myers, LLP.
In this historic decision, the Supreme Court explicitly refused to follow previous Pennsylvania Supreme Court precedent that had declared that school funding cases were non-justiciable “political questions” (that is, not for the courts to decide).
In this case, the plaintiffs presented detailed facts showing that thousands of students across the state, especially those in poor communities, are being denied a “thorough and efficient” education as guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution (an adequacy claim). The plaintiffs also contended that the funding system created gross disparities between rich and poor districts, in both funding and basic educational resources (an equity claim).
In April 2015, the Commonwealth Court dismissed both claims, relying on three previous cases that seemed to rule that school funding claims are not subject to judicial review. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court reversed the lower court’s ruling, declaring that the previous rulings were murky and contradictory and provided no harmonious rule of law to which this Court was bound.
The Court ruled that nothing in the text of Pennsylvania’s Education article precluded judicial review, and that merely rubber-stamping the legislature’s actions with regard to the constitutional duty to provide an adequate education would make a “hollow mockery of judicial review.” The Court also concluded that, contrary to the State’s position, it was possible to devise a judicially enforceable standard of educational adequacy.
Interestingly, the Court pointed to the many other states that have crafted standards for evaluating the constitutionality of the education articles in their constitutions. The Court also noted that courts are routinely called upon to craft legally enforceable definitions of vague terms such as “probable cause” and “due process,” and the Education Article is no different.
The Court also upheld the plaintiffs’ claims that the method by which the state raises and distributes education funding gives rise to an equal protection claim under Pennsylvania’s constitution, noting that previous Pennsylvania school funding cases did not foreclose the possibility of ruling that education is a fundamental individual right in Pennsylvania.
Education Law Center, along with other organizations, filed an amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs in this case (See Related Stories, below).
On October 2, in a unanimous victory for plaintiff schoolchildren and schools, the Kansas Supreme Court declared the State school funding system unconstitutional, finding it provides inadequate funding and distributes that funding inequitably.
The Court retained jurisdiction over the case, Gannon v. State, and set an April 30, 2018, deadline for the parties to submit briefs on a new, State-enacted remedy. Oral arguments before the justices are scheduled for May 22, and the Court said it intends to rule by June 30. Exceptions to that timetable will be made, the Court wrote, if lawmakers come up with a new funding plan more quickly.
“I think there’s no mistake the court means business,” said Alan Rupe, co-lead counsel for the plaintiffs.
Previously the Court had articulated clear standards for constitutionally adequate and equitable school funding and reiterated those standards in this opinion. For student outcome standards, the Court agreed with those adopted into law by the State (Rose standards).
“The Rose standards are basically vocational-ready or post-high school education-ready standards for when students graduate from high school,” Mr. Rupe said. “They require skills in sciences, health, obviously math, reading, the kind of things that we want in an educated workforce or in our kids heading off to college.”
The Court addressed the State’s arguments in detail and explained why and how the current school funding system falls short. The Court also noted that the current system does not meet the per-pupil funding level that the Legislative Research Department itself identified.
Major tax cuts for affluent Kansans enacted under Governor Brownback caused the State to slash school funding, which precipitated the filing of this case. This year, for the first time, the Kansas Legislature started to roll back the tax cuts and passed an override of the Governor’s veto of a tax increase that began to restore some of the missing revenues.
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