The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. (Capital-Star file)
By Fletcher McClellan and Kory Trout
The case of William Penn School District, et al. vs Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, which heard closing arguments on March 10, has tremendous implications for education in Pennsylvania. It may not only produce a huge infusion of resources to public schools, but also reverse the roles of state and local governments in education funding.
The plaintiffs included the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference, and under-resourced school districts in cities (Lancaster, Johnstown, and Wilkes-Barre), rural areas, and poorer suburbs.
Petitioners asserted that the defendants – the executive and legislative branches – are violating the state constitution by failing to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”
A 2015 study indicated that because of its reliance on local property taxes, Pennsylvania has the widest gap in spending between rich and poor school systems in the country.
Another report showed the poorest 20% of school districts, in which one-half of the Commonwealth’s Black students and 40% of its Latino students are enrolled, spent $7866 less per student than did the richest 20%.
The margins reflect the relative wealth of tax bases, not the willingness to pay for education. Poor school districts tax at higher rates than do rich districts, but cannot raise as much money.
Moreover, as of 2019-20, the Commonwealth ranked 45th in state government’s share of public education spending, contributing just 34% of K-12 funds with local districts accounting for 58%.
The result is unequal educational opportunity, plaintiffs claimed. Students in poorer school districts in Pennsylvania and elsewhere have lower standardized test scores, lower graduation rates, lower post-secondary attainment, and lower-paying jobs.
Alternatively, states under court order to increase school funding generally and for the neediest districts saw greater student achievement and success.
The defendants, represented in part by attorneys for Republican legislative leaders, argued that the political-question doctrine bars plaintiffs from seeking judicial relief because only the legislature has the constitutional responsibility to provide education resources that “meet the needs of the Commonwealth.”
Addressing petitioners’ claims, the defense asserted that more education spending does not necessarily lead to higher student achievement. Besides, Pennsylvania in 2017-18 spent $16,395 per pupil, placing the state 7th highest in the nation.
Moreover, the state has taken steps to address inter-district funding inequities, according to the defendant counsel for Gov. Tom Wolf. Starting in 2014-15, the Fair Funding Formula (FFF) channeled education dollars to school districts with lower tax bases, higher proportions of students from poor families, and higher numbers of English language learners.
However, the FFF applies only to new education investments since 2014, supplying only 11% of total basic education funds in 2021. Wolf’s 2022-23 budget proposed an additional $1.25 billion for K-12 education to raise the proportion going through FFF to over 25%.
The governor also recommended a $300 million increase in the Level Up program, created in 2021 to provide more funds to the 100 poorest school districts.
The outcome of the case, heard by Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, turns largely on what a “thorough and efficient system of public education” means.
Plaintiffs stated that “thorough and efficient” in 1874, when the terms were included in the state constitution, meant “adequate” support, synonymous with effectiveness. A Penn State professor testified that $4.6 billion was needed to meet adequacy funding benchmarks in the Commonwealth.
Defendants argued that the vast amount of resources devoted to education in Pennsylvania, accounting for 40% of the state general fund budget, fulfilled the “thorough and efficient” requirement while respecting local control. By and large, school districts provided core subject matter, extracurricular activities, athletic programs, and opportunities for career and technical training.
The Republican respondents defined “system of public education” broadly to include support for school choice, though critics note programs funding private and charter schools operated with minimal accountability.
This trial had its fair share of emotional moments. Representatives for under-resourced schools described crumbling school buildings, many of which contain lead and asbestos hazards. These districts typically have overcrowded classrooms and a paucity of math, reading, and ELL specialists.
Attorneys for GOP leaders questioned how school districts spent allocated funds. One defense counsellor implied that the purpose of under-funded school districts is to help funnel students into “McDonald’s track” and other low-wage jobs.
Interestingly, the GOP defense cited the Governor’s support for education as evidence that the Commonwealth is meeting its constitutional mandate. It was jarring to hear such effusive praise for teachers, principals, school districts, and the Department of Education.
All it takes to bring Democrats and Republicans together, apparently, are rules of evidence, billions of dollars at stake, and the need to impress Pennsylvania’s families and students.
Opinion contributor Fletcher McClellan is a political science professor at Elizabethtown College in Elizabethtown, Pa. His work appears biweekly on the Capital-Star’s Commentary Page. Kory Trout is a is a 2020 graduate of Elizabethtown College, and a student at Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Dauphin County.
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