Court Panel Mulls Taking Up Schools Funding Case

Mar 12, 2015

In this May 20, 2010 photo, students use laptop computers in the classroom at the "School of the Future" in Philadelphia. The state Commonwealth Court must decide whether to consider a lawsuit filed by schools and advocates trying to force the state Legislature to boost education funding.
Credit AP Photo/Matt Rourke

The state Commonwealth Court must decide whether to consider a lawsuit filed by schools and advocates that attempts to force the state Legislature to boost education funding.

Cases similar to this have been rejected by the courts before, but the schools suing the Legislature and the governor's administration say things have changed, arguing that standardized tests show quite plainly whether the education system is delivering on its promises.

Lawyers for the commonwealth say education funding is a political matter, not a judicial one. During Wednesday's hearing before a Commonwealth Court panel, they said the state is fulfilling its constitutionally-mandated duty to provide a "thorough and efficient" education by keeping the doors to the schools open.

"That cannot be the standard," said Michael Churchill, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, arguing on behalf of schools and advocates. "That's a 19th century standard of what an adequate school is."

"We have assessments. We have standards," said Maura McInerney, with the Education Law Center. "In the William Penn school district, if the Keystone requirement were put in place today, only 12 percent of those children would be able to graduate from high school. We can see that the system is broken."

But when pressed for a precise measure of an adequate education system, the schools' lawyers couldn't come up with an exact metric.

"They can't tell you what those manageable standards are," said Patrick Northen, a lawyer with Dilworth Paxson, arguing on behalf of state House leadership.

Judges during the hearing were skeptical they could enforce a decision demanding lawmakers to give more state funding to schools.

"You want us to send our court crier to the Legislature?" said Judge Mary Hannah Leavitt.

"I would suggest you go to the Supreme Court and tell them how they're going to enforce it," President Judge Dan Pellegrini told the schools' lawyers.

Churchill said questions of enforcement are premature.

Both sides expect the case to wind up before the state Supreme Court.