Why the Pa. court ruling on unconstitutional education funding sets up yet another debate

Bruce Siwy
Pennsylvania State Capital Bureau

Pennsylvania's status quo in education funding was shredded this week by a Commonwealth Court decision.

In siding with the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and the NAACP, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer said state government failed to assure that all students have an opportunity to succeed. She stopped short of explicitly proscribing the timeframe and policies that would satisfy this constitutional right to an education.

"All witnesses agree that every child can learn," the judge wrote in conclusion of her 786-page opinion. "It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth."

Which sets up another potential friction point in the Capitol: How exactly will politically divided Harrisburg come together to establish a new funding system that fulfills Pennsylvanians' constitutional right to an education?

Initial responses from leaders of both parties indicated that carrying out that responsibility could be drawn out and contentious, with competing ideas for what's best for students.

"One of the biggest things in there is, it said we need to work together," said Ed Albert, executive director for the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools.

"That's good. We like that and, personally, they should like it as well. Everyone has ownership in this now."

He added that his group, which has called out disparities in advanced placement courses, teacher-to-student ratios and library access across the commonwealth, is ecstatic about the decision overall.

"I don't consider this a homerun," Albert said. "I consider this a grand slam."

In this file photo, a student walks into a classroom at Jay Cooke Elementary in North Philadelphia. Philadelphia is among the school districts most shortchanged by the way Pennsylvania funds public education, according to a new analysis in a lawsuit challenging the system.

Dems cheer 'historic decision,' but school choice is key for GOP

House Democrats also celebrated the ruling, with spokeswoman Nicole Reigelman calling it a "historic decision that paves the way to honor Pennsylvania's commitment to our children, or communities and the future of the commonwealth."

Katrina Robson, an attorney who argued for the petitioners, said during a Zoom question-and-answer session Wednesday that additional public funding for education should come from the Legislature. She suggested that petitioners would take additional action if state government doesn't follow through with the court's mandate for constitutional education opportunities.

Opponents have until March 9 to appeal the Commonwealth Court ruling.

There was some contrast to the Democratic take on the other side of the aisle.

In a statement, Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) said he was disappointed and unsurprised by the court decision. He added, however, that he was still optimistic because the ruling didn't specify additional public school funding as the exclusive solution.

“While we work to continue to provide increased support for students in our public schools, it is imperative that we also provide Pennsylvania families the choice to find educational options that meet the demands of a rapidly changing future while simultaneously meeting the needs of each Pennsylvania family so students are no longer trapped in failed systems and can succeed regardless of ZIP code,” Cutler said.

Pennsylvania House Democratic Leader Joanna McClinton (D-Delaware/Philadelphia) and Pennsylvania House Republican Leader Bryan Cutler (R-Lancaster) may have different ideas about what a constitutional right to an education should look like in the commonwealth.

The word "choice" may be key here: a renewed tug-of-war between the left's union-allied public school advocates and the right's private-school-friendly proponents seems almost unavoidable.

"The only way to ensure that ‘every student receives a meaningful opportunity’ is for education funding to follow the child," Nathan Benefield, vice president of the conservative-leaning Commonwealth Foundation, said in a press release lauding the court decision. "Students that are trapped in their zip-code assigned school — especially in low-income and minority communities — often have no alternatives when their academic or social needs are unmet.  

"Only by giving every student direct access to funding for an excellent education of their choice can we meet the court’s new requirements.”

'That could be contentious'

Critical to this discussion could be Pennsylvania's new Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro. He's advocated for both an increase in education spending (which his own party generally likes) and for a first-ever program directing taxpayer money to families in low-performing districts for use toward private schooling (which the GOP generally likes).

For now, however, the new governor is joining others who've extended a mere toe in these potentially choppy political waters.

"Creating real opportunity for our children begins in our schools, and I believe every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education and safe learning environment, regardless of their zip code," Shapiro said in a statement. "My Administration is in the process of thoroughly reviewing the Commonwealth Court's opinion and we are determining next steps."

Albert, as a member of one of the petitioning organizations in the suit, was more direct in his response to the question of attempting to meet the constitutional mandate through expansive school choice programming favored by private school advocates.

"That's not what we're looking for. That's not what we set out to do. That is certainly not our intent," Albert said.

"I think that could be contentious."

Bruce Siwy is a reporter for the USA TODAY Network's Pennsylvania state capital bureau. He can be reached at bsiwy@gannett.com or on Twitter at @BruceSiwy.