School Funding Ruled Unconstitutional in PA

(February 17, 2023) A zip code should not determine the educational opportunities that a child receives. Unfortunately, with the state share representing only about 38% of funding for our schools, this is the reality across the commonwealth and Allegheny County.

Since the 1970s, the state share in school funding has been reduced, while school costs have been increasing steadily. To make up for the lack of state share, school districts have had to steadily increase their local revenue to provide opportunities for students. For districts that lack local wealth, which includes our most struggling communities, they are unable to raise the local dollars and are unable to provide the same opportunities for their students that more wealthy communities, who can raise significant revenues, can provide. This creates an inequitable system with haves and have nots.

Last week, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer agreed that Pennsylvania’s current system is not only inequitable, but unconstitutional. She ruled that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is unconstitutional and must be reformed. In a 786-page decision, the court found that “All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.” To read more about this decision and to join in the advocacy efforts, visit Fund Our Schools PA.

So what does this mean? Don’t we already have a fair funding formula? Yes, we do – but a funding formula is only as good as the money put into it. There have been increases over the years – but not enough to be able to move away from hold harmless which was established with the funding formula in 2015. This provision ensures that no district receives less than it did in 2015 due to population loss and other pieces built into the formula. These increases over the years were not enough to close the gap between our most struggling districts and our wealthiest ones. So, a good first step in meeting the constitutional responsibility of funding our schools is to inject a significant amount of resources into Basic Education Funding. The second is to revisit the formula and distribution of education dollars to see if there is a better way to allocate those funds to our schools. The third step is to identify stable and recurring revenue streams that can offset investments into the education system.

Unfortunately, none of these are easy lifts. With a new administration in Harrisburg and the General Assembly chambers split with Republicans in charge of the Senate and Democrats in charge of the House, it is unlikely that there will be significant increases in education funding this year. It is also possible that the Legislature will appeal the court’s decision.

With the court’s ruling it is possible that this will strike a chord in Harrisburg and cause the legislature to take action to start re-examining the distribution of funds. Allies for Children will continue to keep a close eye on this and will report on any progress. In the meantime, here are some articles for additional information:

Judge’s Decision in State School Funding Lawsuit Brings Hope, Concern for Educators (Public Source)
Judge Deems Pennsylvania’s School Funding System Unconstitutional (WESA)
Shapiro, Pa. Lawmakers May Face Multibillion-dollar Budget Question After Major School Funding Ruling (Spotlight PA)
Poorer Districts Win Challenge to PA Public School Funding (AP News)

Jamie Baxter, Allies for Children Executive Director