Court arguments set in Pa. school-funding case

Top Republican lawmakers fighting a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Pennsylvania’s school-funding system will present their arguments before a full panel of Commonwealth Court judges next month.

A hearing was scheduled for March 7. Judges will determine whether the case should proceed.

The suit cites disparities among low- and high-wealth school districts and alleges that Pennsylvania’s funding approach violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system” of education and its equal-protection provision.

Advocates have long sought court intervention in Pennsylvania’s approach to school funding, which relies primarily on property taxes to pay for schools and has resulted in large spending differences among communities.

Pennsylvania courts previously dismissed school-funding cases, including this one. When it was first brought in 2014 by a group of plaintiffs including the William Penn School District in Delaware County, Commonwealth Court rejected the case, ruling that school funding was a political — not a judicial — question.

But the state Supreme Court revived the lawsuit last year, ordering the lower court to hold a trial.

Among other reasons, legislative leaders argue that the case should be dismissed again because the state adopted a new funding formula after the suit’s original 2014 filing.

“This case, as pleaded, is therefore moot,” lawyers for State Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R., Jefferson) said in a recent filing.

Scarnati contended in the filing that school districts have “broad discretion” in how they spend money. Statewide, a majority of district spending is devoted to fixed costs.

While the state funding formula adopted in 2016 directs more money to school districts for poor students or those learning English, it applies only to a portion of education spending — a fraction of what Pennsylvania spends on schools.

“As any parent in an underfunded school district could tell you, the constitutional deprivations that existed in 2014 have not been cured in the last two years,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, staff attorney for the Public Interest Law Center, which, along with the Education Law Center, represents parents and school districts in the case.

He said arguments by Scarnati and House Speaker Mike Turzai (R., Allegheny) represented “a transparent attempt at delay.” Turzai’s lawyers argued in a recent filing that the plaintiffs could not claim their constitutional rights had been violated because education is not a “fundamental right.”

Turzai’s lawyers said in the filing that “the commonwealth’s system for funding public education is plainly supported by the rational basis of preserving local control over public schools.”

“There is no way, given the Supreme Court’s decision, that this case is not moving forward,” Urevick-Ackelsberg said.

Drew Crompton, Senate Republicans’ top lawyer, said that Scarnati thinks the issue has been resolved. Given that the state has been moving money into the new formula, “we really don’t know what the duties that we should be going forward with” are, he said.

Gov. Wolf, while also a defendant in the lawsuit, has asked the court to reject lawmakers’ motions to dismiss the case and to “swiftly undertake discovery and move this matter toward a resolution.” A Democrat elected in 2014 promising to increase education spending, Wolf has said that “more needs to be done” to ensure that funding is “equitable and adequate.”