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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Hears Oral Argument for Fair Education Funding Lawsuit

The suit, filed in 2014, claims the Commonwealth is violating its constitutional duty to “support and maintain” a “thorough and efficient system of public education”

Oral argument in William Penn School District, et al. v. Pennsylvania Dept. of Education, et al. commenced before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court at Philadelphia City Hall on September 13. Hundreds of parents, students, superintendents, and school board members, including advocates from as far away as Erie and Pittsburgh, crowded the halls of Philadelphia City Hall and waited in line to attend the argument.

The case was filed in 2014 against the governor and legislative leaders in response to decades of underfunding by Harrisburg that has deprived children of the resources they need to succeed.

The attorney for the petitioners delivered a powerful argument urging the state’s highest court to permit judicial review of the state’s failures to uphold the Pennsylvania Constitution’s Education Clause and Equal Protection provision. Specifically, the petitioners challenged that years of underfunding by the state legislature are in direct violation of the Education Clause’s language to provide a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

Two attorneys representing the legislature and Governor argued that the courts have no role in ensuring that children in Pennsylvania have access to an adequate education and that the courts have no responsibility to enforce the state constitution.

“The legislature continues to abdicate its constitutional responsibilities year after year by drastically underfunding our public schools,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, Executive Director of the Education Law Center. “Today we asked the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to give us the opportunity to make the case for our public schools in court. We asked the court to protect and enforce our Constitution.”

“Pennsylvania’s current education funding system is unconstitutional. Right now, a child’s ZIP code determines whether or not he or she will have access to basic school resources like text books and computers,” said Michael Churchill, of counsel for the Public Interest Law Center. “The disparities between well funded and poorly funded districts are greater in Pennsylvania than any other state in the country.  The courts need to tell the legislature to end this inequity.”

Attorneys for the petitioners are asking the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to permit a full trial on the merits of the case, reversing a 2015 Commonwealth Court decision that dismissed the case. This will allow the petitioners to present evidence that the General Assembly has violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund Pennsylvania’s public schools and leaving children without the resources they need to succeed academically. The petitioners that brought the case include seven parents, six school districts – William Penn, Panther Valley, Lancaster, Greater Johnstown, Wilkes-Barre Area and Shenandoah Valley – the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools (PARSS) and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference.  The Public Interest Law Center and Education Law Center-PA are representing the petitioners.

Following the hearing, a large, spirited rally took place on the north side of City Hall.  Speakers and attendees included State Senator Vincent Hughes, representatives from the parent and school district petitioners, Councilwoman Helen Gym, clergy from Philadelphians Organized to Witness Empower and Rebuild (POWER), advocates from Education Voters of PA and the NAACP, and attorneys from the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center-PA.

While Pennsylvania recently adopted a school funding formula – which the attorneys for the plaintiffs acknowledge is a step in the right direction – only 6% of the state’s basic education dollars are driven out through that formula and state education funding levels overall remain wholly inadequate to meet the needs of students.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is expected to issue its decision of the appeal sometime after the oral argument, although there is no specific deadline.

More information, including case documents, can be found here: http://edfundinglawsuit.wordpress.com/

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The Education Law Center-PA (“ELC”) is a non-profit, legal advocacy organization dedicated to ensuring that all children in Pennsylvania have access to a quality public education. Through legal representation, impact litigation, trainings, and policy advocacy, ELC advances the rights of vulnerable children, including children living in poverty, children of color, children in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, children with disabilities, English language learners, LGBTQ students, and children experiencing homelessness.  For more information visit http://www.elc-pa.org/ or follow on Twitter @edlawcenterpa.

The Public Interest Law Center uses high-impact legal strategies to improve the well-being and life prospects of vulnerable people by ensuring they have access to fundamental resources including a high-quality public education, health care, employment, housing, safe and healthy neighborhoods and the right to vote. For more information visit www.pubintlaw.org or follow on Twitter @PubIntLawCtr.

 

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