Our Opinion: Give school districts their day in (Commonwealth) court


Attorneys representing parents and Pennsylvania school districts – including Wilkes-Barre Area – appeared before the state Supreme Court on Tuesday to argue for judicial intervention in the school-funding debate.

In Luzerne County – where public school districts have cut programs, halved kindergarten, and attempted to switch to four-day school weeks – this case matters.

The problem: Because school district budgets are so reliant on local property taxes, how much a district spends for each student depends on where that student lives. Among Pennsylvania’s 500 districts, per-pupil spending ranges from $9,800 to $28,400.

The lawsuit contends that the state is not fulfilling its constitutional duty to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” and that the disparities violate “equal rights protections.”

Attorneys for the state didn’t deny the disparity. How could they? Rather, they argued that judges have no place in resolving it.

“No individual child has any specific right to an education at all” under the constitution, argued John Knorr, of the state Attorney General’s office. The constitution requires the state only to set up a system, “and there it remains until the people of Pennsylvania tell us otherwise.”

That has been the position of state courts for decades. Similar lawsuits were dismissed as matters beyond judicial review.

But advocates argued things are different today. The state not only adopted new academic standards (not uncommon), but also implemented annual standardized tests, set goals that districts must meet in those tests, and conducted a 2007 “costing out” study that determined how much money each district needs to meet those goals.

This year, the state adopted a new funding formula intended to give more state money to the districts with greatest need. The problem – indeed, the absurdity – is that only “new money” got funneled through that formula; at most, that’s 6 percent of the total spent for education.

The state argued that judicial intervention could create a morass of court micro-management, or – as Knorr contended – that the advocates really wanted a vast, court-mandated increase in spending. But no one is asking the justices any such thing. Advocates are asking only that their case get a full hearing in Commonwealth Court, where it previously was dismissed.

As Education Law Center attorney Maura McInerney told a Times Leader reporter on Tuesday, a court simply could order the Legislature and administration to go back to the drawing board and find a solution. In 27 other states, state supreme courts have overturned school-financing systems, largely without cataclysm.

The advocates for judicial intervention in school funding should get their full trial. Pennsylvania’s funding disparities have grown profound. The legislative and executive branches have failed too long in addressing the disparity, and the education landscape in the state has changed more than enough to warrant it.

As area resident Tracey Hughes, who joined the lawsuit as a parent, said, the state’s argument is essentially that there are only two branches of government.

This protracted debate is exactly the reason we have a third.