The Commonwealth Must Act Now to Reform School Funding

A school where 125 first graders must share one toilet, and small group academic intervention takes place in a cinder block storage closet due to lack of space. Districts with such severe staff shortages that one teacher is forced to teach two different subjects to two different classes simultaneously in the same room.

Testimony in Pennsylvania’s school funding trial, William Penn v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, revealed these deplorable conditions and many more in the state’s poorest school districts. The data presented during the trial also revealed striking gaps in student outcomes, whether measured in test scores, graduation rates, or post-secondary enrollment and attainment. The severe and consistent gaps in both school resources and student outcomes particularly affected Black, Latinx, economically disadvantaged, and other historically underserved students.

These “manifest deficiencies” led Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer to the “inescapable conclusion” that students were being deprived of their fundamental right to a “thorough and efficient” education under Pennsylvania’s constitution. The court further concluded that the gross disparities in educational opportunities between low-income and high-income districts violated students’ constitutional guarantee to equal protection. The judge’s 786-page decision was released in February.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit – parents, students, six low-wealth school districts, and the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP – are represented by Education Law Center Pennsylvania, The Public Interest Law Center, and the law firm, O’Melveny, pro bono.

Education Law Center (ELC) and 20 education advocacy and child welfare organizations submitted an amicus curiae, or “friend of the court,” brief in the case, emphasizing the connection between adequate and equitable investments in public schools and improved student outcomes.

“ELC was proud to support this extremely consequential lawsuit,” said Robert Kim, ELC Executive Director, “We’re pleased about the Judge’s ruling, but that is just the first step. Now, it’s incumbent on all the parties to quickly find the best solution to provide Pennsylvania students with a constitutional education.”

Judge Jubelirer did not instruct the Commonwealth on how to address the constitutional violation she found, or at what level of funding: “it seems only reasonable to allow Respondents, comprised of the Executive and Legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with Petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein.”

Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro, who, as Attorney General, wrote an amicus brief supporting the plaintiffs, agreed. In his first budget address, the Governor called Judge Jubelirer’s decision “a call to action,” and said he pledged to stand ready to craft a solution with his legislative counterparts.

The plaintiffs in the case are eager to work to develop a legally compliant system. During the trial, experts estimated the state funding shortfall to be well over $4 billion dollars. Judge Jubelirer did not accept that amount as the definitive number, in part because it was based on an outdated cost study that didn’t take into account more rigorous current academic standards or costs such as facilities and preschool.

“Pennsylvania students have suffered for years, trying to learn in moldy buildings, with outdated textbooks, and without a sufficient number of vital professionals like social workers or readings specialists,” said Maura McInerney, Legal Director of Education Law Center Pennsylvania and one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys. “The court has spoken, and it is past time for legislators and the governor to reform the school finance system so that every student, no matter where they live and what they need, receives the same meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

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Press Contact:

Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x 240

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Press Contact:
Sharon Krengel
Director of Policy, Strategic Partnerships and Communications
973-624-1815, x240