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PA school funding ruled unconstitutional

The lawsuit alleged all state funding should be given out using the fair funding formula, dividing money amongst the state's 500 school districts.

HARRISBURG, Pa. — A judge has declared that Pennsylvania's school funding formula is unconstitutional.

The plaintiffs included educators and parents across northeastern and central Pennsylvania, including Panther Valley, Wilkes-Barre Area, and Shenandoah Valley School districts.

The lawsuit alleged all state funding should be given out using the fair funding formula, dividing money amongst the state's 500 school districts.

State Senator Marty Flynn says this is just the beginning.

"I'm excited you know this decision is a once-in-a-generation decision that's really going to help school districts in our urban centers like Scranton. It's a big deal, it's a real big deal, and I'm happy to be here to help come up with a plan to get it funded," Flynn said.

On the Republican side, State Representative David Rowe out of central PA told Newswatch 16 late Tuesday night in part quote: "Hopefully, this ruling gives us an opportunity to pursue much-needed education reforms so that Pennsylvania can finally move into the modern era."

The ruling is expected to be appealed.

If this ruling gets upheld, the next step would be for the divided state legislature to get a bill to Governor Shapiro's desk.

AP story: 

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A Pennsylvania judge ruled Tuesday the state's funding of public education falls woefully short and violates students' constitutional rights, siding with poorer districts in a lawsuit that was first launched eight years ago in pursuit of potentially billions of dollars in additional annual support.

Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer found that the state has not fulfilled its obligations to the poorest public schools under the state constitution. She said in a nearly 800-page ruling that current funding violates those students' rights to what should be a "comprehensive, effective, and contemporary" system.

The Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center, which helped represent the plaintiffs, hailed the decision as "a historic victory for students," saying it will "change the future for millions of families."

Cohn Jubelirer wrote that students in areas with low property values and incomes "are deprived of the same opportunities and resources as students who reside in school districts with high property values and incomes," and that disparity "is not justified by any compelling government interest nor is it rationally related to any legitimate government objective."

She said the result is that students in lower-wealth districts are being deprived of their constitutional right to equal protection of law.

Lawyers for the school districts and others who sued presented evidence during last year's trial that schools are underfunded by $4.6 billion, an estimate that they say does not account for gaps in spending on special education, school buildings and other facilities

At its heart, the lawsuit argued Pennsylvania's method of paying for public schools did not meet an explicit standard in the state constitution that lawmakers provide a "thorough and efficient system" of education.

Republican leaders in the General Assembly had told the judge school subsidies were adequate and growing. Republican leaders in the state House and Senate indicated the decision was being reviewed.

Cohn Jubelirer found that achievement gaps are wider for certain historically disadvantaged groups, including Black students, Hispanic students, English-language learners, poorer students and others.

"Educators credibly testified to lacking the very resources state officials have identified as essential to student achievement, some of which are as basic as safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn," Cohn Jubelirer wrote. "Educators also testified about being forced to choose which few students would benefit from the limited resources they could afford to provide, despite knowing more students needed those same resources."

Cohn Jubelirer's decision did not direct the Legislature on how much state aid to distribute, or how to distribute it. Rather, she wrote that the court is in "uncharted territory with this landmark case," and left it to the governor, lawmakers and the school districts that sued to come up with a plan to address the constitutional violations.

As state attorney general last year, newly elected Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro filed a brief that supported the lawsuit's aims.

The case was brought by six districts, several parents, the state conference of the NAACP and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. They sued the governor, Education Department, education secretary, state Board of Education and high-ranking legislative leaders.

The litigants have said Pennsylvania's state government pays for a far smaller percentage of K-12 education than the national average. Pennsylvania relies heavily on real estate property taxes to fund its public schools, helping cause a wide gap between the state's richest and poorest districts.

They have argued underfunded districts have been more likely to have larger class sizes, less qualified faculty, outdated textbooks and other shortcomings. But Republican legislative leaders responded that the state's educational spending compares favorably to other states and that's reflected in student achievement.

The case had been dismissed by Commonwealth Court, ruling that school funding was a political question that should not be resolved by the courts, but was revived in 2017 by the state Supreme Court. An appeal to the high court is possible.

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