September 28: A historic victory

On September 28, 2017, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court delivered a major victory to hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvania students by ordering the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial on whether state officials are violating the state’s constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education.

The lawsuit – William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. – was filed in 2014 on behalf of parents, school districts, and statewide organizations in response to the failure in Harrisburg to adequately fund public education and provide students with the resources they need to succeed academically.

In a sweeping decision, the Court agreed that it has a clear duty to consider the case and ensure legislative compliance with the state’s Education Clause, which requires the General Assembly to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education” for Pennsylvania’s schoolchildren. The Court also found no basis to deny consideration of claims by parents and school districts that the legislature’s grossly unequal funding discriminates against children based on where they live and the wealth of their communities.  Read the decision here.

“Judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches,” Justice David N. Wecht wrote in his majority opinion. “It is fair neither to the people of the Commonwealth nor the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate.”

Given the dire situation many schools face, lawyers on the case will work to bring it to trial as soon as possible. Many schools have yet to recover from the drastic funding cuts of 2011 and still lack basic resources, including updated textbooks, modern curricula and school counselors. Compounding this issue, at best, less than 10 percent of the state’s education budget in the coming school year will be distributed through the basic education funding formula, which was adopted by the legislature in 2015 in an attempt to distribute funds based on actual student needs. Modest investments in education over the past few years remain inadequate and the legislature has abandoned setting any goal for adequate funding.

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