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BLUE PENNSYLVANIA: THE COMMONWEALTH COURT RULING ON EDUCATIONAL FUNDING

One of the big news items coming out of Harrisburg this week (along with the Democrats securing the Pennsylvania House of Representatives) was Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubilirer’s ruling that the manner in which Pennsylvania funds its public school districts is unconstitutional.

This ruling is certainly a cause for celebration. It is the first time in the history of the fair funding battle, that the state’s dissemination of educational money has been declared unconstitutional – and by a Republican justice at that.

But the decision should also remind us that we must keep fighting until every school district in the state is fully and fairly funded. Here’s why.

AN APPEAL IS ALREADY IN THE FORECAST

This case will almost assuredly be appealed to the state supreme court. Since Republicans appear to be invested in unfair school funding, the likely appellants are the GOP dominated Pennsylvania Senate and/or House minority leader Bryan Cutler, whom Jubilirer has allowed to intervene in the case.

THESE CASES CAN LAST FOR YEARS

It’s important to realize that this case is almost nine years old, having been filed in Commonwealth Court, appealed to the state Supreme Court, and returned to Commonwealth Court, where Renée Cohn Jubilirer issued her decision this week. It could be an additional number of years before the case is settled.

THE DECISION PROVIDES ONLY GUIDANCE

Judge Jubilirer’s decision was simply an opinion concerning the constitutionality of the state’s method of funding. Beyond that, Jubilirer wrote, “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.” The justice provided neither a timeline to accomplish this objective, nor any sanction for failure to comply.

HISTORICAL PRECEDENT

According to historical precedent, little generally changes in states where the application of school funding formulas have been declared unconstitutional. According to Joshua Weishart, a West Virginia University law professor who specializes in education rights, lawmakers generally do not approve enough funding to fully comply with the courts’ decisions.

Philadelphia’s history of judicial intervention provides a good example of how compliance with judicial orders falls short. In 1994, Judge Doris Smith-Ribner ruled that minorities needed to receive resources commensurate with those found in white communities. With the exception of a small window of time in 2009, however, Judge Smith’s decision has remained an unfunded mandate.

HOW THE RULING CAN BE DISTORTED

When Judge Smith initially issued her ruling, the educational landscape in Pennsylvania was much simpler. The state was divided then into 501 school districts (there are now 500), with each district receiving a certain amount of money from the state.

Since then, educational dollars have also flown to charter schools – schools privately administered with public money - many of which are in districts negatively impacted by the unfair distribution of money through the current funding formula.

Educational tax credits are another method of funneling public money to private (and in most cases religious) schools. A contribution to an organization connected with private (religious) school scholarships can earn the donor a credit on their state income taxes.

With Judge Smith’s decision as a backdrop, Republican legislators not only pushed charters and tax credits as educational alternatives, but any extra dollars that were allocated for education often found their way into these privatization efforts.

Within hours of Judge Jubilirer’s decision, House Republican leader Bryan Cutler’s webpage issued the two following remarks:

“Many of our public schools often lack real accountability and have become captured by special interests and bureaucrats who put their needs above that of the students,” and

“Unfortunately, many public schools remain reluctant about increasing parental involvement in how their children are educated.”

Cutler is clearly projecting the drawbacks of the privatization efforts onto Pennsylvania’s school districts. Republicans have prevented the commonwealth from collecting financial or achievement information of the scholarships’ beneficiaries, thereby preventing an evaluation of the programs’ success or failure.

There have also been further indications of Josh Shapiro seeking to expand school privatization in the form of Lifeline Scholarships, which would go directly to public school students and their families to help finance a private school education.

WHAT CAN YOU DO?

While the Commonwealth Court decision on educational funding has the potential to provide every school district in Pennsylvania with the resources they need to effectively educate our students, it will not happen without your help. Use this link to write the governor and your representative in Harrisburg to tell them that you want full and fair funding for public education now.

Thanks,

Coleman

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