Pennsylvania School Funding War Drags On

Pennsylvania doesn’t yet have a state budget, something the state is required to have in place on June 30. A protracted, years-long, and politically contentious fight about inadequate and grossly inequitably distributed school funding is a primary reason for the impasse.

A Republican-dominated state legislature has refused to compromise with the new Democratic governor on a plan that would fund the government and restore desperately needed money for the public schools.  Former governor, Tom Corbett, who ripped more than a billion dollars out of the state budget for public schools, was soundly defeated last November.  But Governor Tom Wolf has not been able to move Corbett’s allies in the legislature to do the right thing for Pennsylvania’s children.  Wolf defeated Corbett last November in large part due to a statewide school funding crisis created by Corbett’s tax cuts.  Corbett and the legislature had pretended to help the School District of Philadelphia—already devastated by school closures and staff layoffs—to survive by passing enabling legislation to permit Philadelphia to enact a cigarette tax on its own residents, a local sin tax dedicated for the public schools.

Last Thursday the editorial board of the Philadelphia Inquirer supported Governor Tom Wolf’s pledge to veto a stopgap, temporary budget presented to him by the legislature on September 18: “Republican legislators have put their old, irresponsible fiscal plan in a new wrapper and called it a stopgap budget.  While their plan promises to fund the state until November, it also threatens to delay sincere negotiations, allowing the state’s elected officials—already nearly three months late—to go that much longer without performing one of their most basic duties: passing a budget.  The Democratic governor has already rightly rejected the legislature’s proposal, which would perpetuate Harrisburg’s habit of leaving bills unpaid, relying on one-time gimmicks, and raiding dedicated funds.  Nor would it adequately fund schools or force the shale-gas industry to shoulder its share of the tax burden at long last.”

Then there is the lawsuit filed by plaintiffs across Pennsylvania that the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s constitution—the same language to protect adequate and equitably distributed funding that appears in many state constitutions.  The lawsuit, William Penn School District v. State was filed in November of 2014.  The state has requested that the case be dismissed based on precedents when similar school funding lawsuits were previously brought in Pennsylvania.  While a lower court did dismiss the William Penn School District case, plaintiffs and advocates who filed an amicus brief on their behalf last week, simply ask that plaintiffs be granted the right to present their case and evidence to the Supreme Court, which is scheduled to hear an appeal of the case early in 2016.

Derek Black explains the history of the case at the Law Professors Blog Network: “Last fall, plaintiffs filed suit against Pennsylvania, arguing that education is a fundamental right under the state constitution and that the state has violated that right by repeatedly failing to ensure adequate education resources.  That claim moved through the trial court quickly and is now before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Pennsylvania is one of the few states that has yet to fully entertain these issues, having dismissed school funding cases in the past as non-justiciable. Something tells me that this time might be different. As discussed several times on this blog over the past few years, the state has been so derelict in its obligations to its students that its action could be declared unconstitutional under any minimal and deferential standard one might imagine.”

The amicus brief in support of the plaintiffs was filed last week by the national Education Law Center and a number of organizations in Pennsylvania that include Education Matters in the Cumberland Valley, Education Voters of Pennsylvania, the Jewish Social Policy Action Network, the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners, Public Citizens for Children and Youth, and Yinzercation.

David Sciarra, Executive Director of the national Education Law Center commented: “Pennsylvania school funding is among the most unfair in the nation, shortchanging opportunity for public school children across the state.  The current protracted standoff over the state budget makes it even more imperative to give these school children their day in court.”

This blog has covered Pennsylvania’s school funding morass on a number of occasions.  For example, see here and here.