School Funding Crusaders to Appeal Suit to State Supreme Court

Advocates are not accepting a ruling by Commonwealth Court.

commonwealth-court-940

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court. Photo | pacourts.us

A Commonwealth Court ruling overturning a challenge to Pennsylvania’s method of funding schools will be appealed to the state’s Supreme Court, education activists said Tuesday afternoon. (See the ruling below.)

“This is a question of paramount importance to all Pennsylvanians, and we always knew this would ultimately be decided by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court,” said Jennifer Clarke, executive director of The Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, which is helping prosecute the case.

A seven-judge panel of the Commonwealth Court on Tuesday rejected the lawsuit, saying it is not the role of the state’s judicial branch to determine which education funding policies are best or even adequate.

“This is a legislative policy determination,” Judge Dan Pellegrini wrote for the court.

But the plaintiffs — including several school districts and the parents of some Philadelphia school children — said the Pennsylvania state constitution requires such judgments.

It reads:

“The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.”

Previous lawsuits to force the legislature to boost funding for schools have failed, however, with courts reluctant to intervene — saying that maintaining such a system is a political question best left to the executive and legislative branches of government.

Today’s plaintiffs argued, however, that in the years since the lawsuit, the General Assembly has created a standard to be judged against: The Keystone Exams, completion of which is a graduation requirement. If students are unable to meet the standards of those legislatively approved exams, they argued, it means the state is failing to fund education adequately to help students pass. That, they say, requires court intervention.

“Certainly we don’t agree with the commonwealth court’s decision,” said Maura McInerney of the Education Law Center, which also helped bring the case. “We believe they’ve abrogated an obligation they have as a court, which is to preserve and protect the Pennsylvania Constitution.”

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court will now decide if the state’s courts have a role to play in enforcing the clause. Court observers expect the case will continue into 2016.

McInerney noted that exam season has already started in the state’s public schools. “It’s students who will suffer,” she said. “They’re expected to meet state standards, yet the state legislature has failed to provide enough resources to meet those standards.  …  This is going to change their life trajectory.”

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