HARRISBURG, PA — In February, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer called for a new funding system to fulfill Pennsylvania’s obligation to provide students with a “comprehensive, …
HARRISBURG, PA — In February, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer called for a new funding system to fulfill Pennsylvania’s obligation to provide students with a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education,” as required by the state constitution.
Her ruling found that Pennsylvania school funding is highly inequitable from one school district to another. But the age-old problem of how to correct this inequity persists, and the judge offered no way forward.
“The Court is in uncharted territory with this landmark case,” she wrote.
Though the challenges Pennsylvania schools face are great, she said, in complexity “they pale by comparison to the final question: remedy.”
Cohn Jubelirer, a conservative judge, quoted Ben Franklin’s Way to Wealth in her opinion, that an “investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” The central question, she said, is whether the state’s investment in public education, as managed by the General Assembly, complies with the constitution.
The case was brought by a number of school districts, parents and advocacy organizations. The judge said the court applied the equal protection clause to the facts in this case and concluded that the petitioners “have established an equal protection violation.”
“No compelling government purpose has been espoused for the disparities identified between low-wealth and high-wealth school districts,” she continued. “Even applying the less stringent intermediate or rational basis scrutiny, the Court would conclude that there is no rational basis for such disparities.”
In the wake of this decision, PA Gov. Josh Shapiro charged the Basic Education Funding Commission and legislative leaders with developing a response.
The Pennsylvania Policy Center—the state affiliate of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a nonpartisan research and policy institute—has prepared materials for the commission that address a number of questions raised during its hearing. Members of the General Assembly will ultimately decide how Pennsylvania funds K-12 education going forward.
The policy center released a memo summarizing its three policy reports.
School districts in Pennsylvania must rely on funds raised by local taxes. The memo concludes that raising school taxes is a political non-starter, and that the funding needed to make schools statewide more equitable must come from the state.
The first report, titled “Shuffling the Deck Won’t Solve the Pennsylvania School Funding Crisis,” addresses the paradox that Pennsylvania has a relatively high level of school funding, but also has a system with the most inequitably funded schools in the country. “The high level of spending in a few districts pushes up our state average—but most of our kids are still left behind,” states the memo.
The inequity of Pennsylvania’s school funding is the result of its low state share of K-12 funding, says the memo. “And the inadequacy of funding in most schools, despite a relatively high overall amount of funding, is not just the result of inequity but also arises because the standard set by our constitution requires more than the mediocre school performance found in most states.”
The policy center says the evidence presented to Judge Cohn Jubelirer shows that the state’s share of K-12 education spending is among the lowest in the country. “The state’s few, wealthier school districts can generate far more funding, even at low and moderate local tax rates, than the many less wealthy school districts can provide even with high local tax rates,” the memo states. “As a result, school funding in less wealthy school districts... [means that many districts are] drastically underfunded and provide an inadequate education.”
The second report, titled “Education Funding and Educational Achievement,” reviews recent academic evidence about the dramatic improvement that new school funding has on student achievement and later-life success.
The third report, “The Contribution of K-12 Education to Economic Growth and Democracy,” reviews the academic evidence “demonstrating that the 19th-century founders of public education in Pennsylvania, starting with Thaddeus Stevens, were right to believe that improvements in the quality of education both strengthen our democracy and lead to faster economic growth.”
The judge wrote in her opinion that the court would not interfere with local control. “Nothing in the foregoing opinion undermines the ability of the General Assembly to continue providing local control to school boards or infringes on any of the sister branches of government’s authority,” she wrote. “Nor does it require reform to be entirely financial. The options for reform are virtually limitless. The only requirement, that imposed by the Constitution, is that every student receives 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.”
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