Pennsylvania Court Issues Blockbuster Ruling: the State’s Education Funding Formula Unconstitutional

In a stunning 786-page opinion issued on February 7, Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer held that Pennsylvania’s education funding system violates both the education clause and the equal protection clause of the state constitution (William Penn School District et al. v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et al.). She ruled that education is a fundamental right under the Pennsylvania Constitution and that the current funding formula does not adequately consider student needs, which are generally higher in low-income districts. Specifically, she held that students in low-wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of the law and that “the Education Clause requires that every student be provided with 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.”

Judge Jubelirer’s carefully crafted decision, written almost a year after the lengthy trial had concluded, meticulously examined all of the testimony and evidence in the case, the legal arguments made by the parties and the amici, and decisions of courts in other states. For example, she provided 153 pages of careful analysis of each of the five expert witnesses presented by the plaintiffs and the five experts presented by the defendants. The judge also considered in depth the resource inputs such as teacher experience, adequacy of textbooks and technology, and facilities in each of the six petitioner school districts as well as outcomes in terms of test scores and graduation rates of students in these districts compared with all students statewide. She concluded that:

The evidence demonstrates that low-wealth districts like Petitioner Districts which struggle to raise enough revenue through local taxes to cover the greater needs of their students, lack the inputs that are essential elements of a thorough and efficient system of education —- adequate courses, curricula and other programs that prepare students to be college and career ready; sufficient, qualified, and effective staff; safe and adequate facilities; modern instrumentalities of learning. The COVID pandemic highlighted these deficiencies….

The Court issued a declaratory judgment outlining the parameters of the essential elements of a constitutionally valid school funding system, but the judge did not order any specific remedies for correcting the extensive constitutional violations that she found. That task will now be the responsibility of the governor and the legislature.

At this point, the defendants, who include the governor, the legislative leaders, and the department of education, have not indicated whether or not they intend to appeal. It is notable, however, that Governor Josh Shapiro, in his previous position as attorney general, had submitted a brief to the court supporting the petitioners’ position.