By Mia Hoetzlein-Sirman, Staff Writer
On February 7, 2023, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania returned a monumental decision on an ongoing school funding lawsuit almost a year after the trial ended. The court determined that the funding mechanisms for Pennsylvania’s public schools are unconstitutional and must be remedied immediately. This lawsuit began in 2014 when school systems, parents, and advocacy groups complained that the funding of the public school system was “inadequate to the point that it violates the state’s constitution.” Although the Court has found in favor of the plaintiffs, the state government will likely appeal the decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court.
Pennsylvania funds its public schools through a combination of federal, state, and local funding. The federal government provides eleven percent of the budget, the state government provides thirty-six percent, and the localities must provide the remainder at around fifty-three percent. The localities provide their funding primarily through property taxes, which has created severe inequalities in the amounts that school districts receive. The highest-spending district spends around $30,000 per student, while the lowest-spending district has only $9,500 per student. On average, there is nearly a $4,000 discrepancy in the district’s spending on students. This enormous discrepancy in funding is incredibly harmful to the residents in the low-spending districts, as they are unable to provide quality education.
Most states have a funding formula that “creates a baseline funding level for state and local funding for all school districts on a per-student level and establishes a ‘base amount’ that ought to be spent to educate each student.” Although Pennsylvania recently created a similar formula to funnel state money into low-income school districts, it fails to make up for the discrepancies in funding. In fact, only 20% of the state budget is subject to the funding formula. This substantially contributes to the funding inequalities among Pennsylvania localities.
According to the Court, the Pennsylvania Constitution requires that “every student receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.” Additionally, the Court stated that education is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution. It determined that students were being discriminated against based on property taxes and the level of income in their school district, therefore depriving students in these low-income areas of equal opportunities and protections from the law.
The plaintiffs were able to demonstrate a substantial deficiency between the low-spending and high-spending districts during the trial. Test scores throughout the state reflect a wide discrepancy between those from poor districts and those from wealthy districts. The plaintiffs showed that some low-spending school districts are unable to provide “safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn.” They suggested that the state should put more money into the school system instead of redistributing it. A Pennsylvania State University professor suggested that an additional 4.6 billion dollars is needed for the school system.
Meanwhile, the state’s lawyers suggested that the state funding did not matter based on the potential career tracks of some students. A lawyer for the defendants went as far as asking a superintendent in a low-spending district “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?”
The Court’s decision does not include instructions on how to remedy the situation but does state that, “in the 21st century, students need more than a desk, chair, pen, paper, and textbooks.” Although the defendants will likely appeal this decision, some members of the legislature believe that the court is correct in it’s ruling. Pennsylvania Representative Michael Carroll stated, “The way we fund schools, specifically the 500 school districts, is broken. And the lawsuit is the best avenue to repair it.”