In a decision that could eventually shake Pennsylvania's educational landscape, the state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a lawsuit challenging the commonwealth's public school funding system can move forward.
The court did not compel the state Legislature to redistribute money — not yet. It simply said the judiciary can consider whether legislators have satisfied clauses in the state Constitution that require Pennsylvania to provide equal protection under the law and a "thorough and efficient system of public education."
The 5-2 ruling reversed decades of precedent, and it opens the door for a breakthrough challenge to the state's educational funding system. If that challenge succeeds, Pennsylvania school districts could see dramatic changes in state aid.
"This is what we've been praying for for a long time," said Jennifer Hoff, president of the William Penn School District, which banded together with other districts and advocates to bring the lawsuit.
The case will likely move to Commonwealth Court next, where justices will rule on the merits of the constitutional argument rather than simply mulling whether to get involved.
Progressive education advocates hailed the decision as a major step forward for education equity. Many have long claimed Pennsylvania's method for disbursing education dollars is among the most backward in the nation, exacerbating gaps between rich and poor.
"In no other state do students in poor districts receive so much less than their peers in wealthier districts," said Maura McInerney with the Education Law Center.
Poaching on lawmakers' territory?
Critics, however, said Thursday's decision sets dangerous precedent. The courts, they believe, shouldn't get caught up in determining how much money the Legislature should spend on schools and whether those dollars are distributed fairly. Plus, they argue, the state just passed a fair-funding formula to even out inequalities. Right now, however, just a small fraction of basic education dollars pass through the new formula.
"Besides just ignoring the hard work and fair outcome of the Basic Education Funding Formula Commission, and besides ignoring the clear delineation of the separation of powers, this activist court just threw out more than 150 years of jurisprudence," said Stephen Miskin, spokesman for defendant and Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Mike Turzai. "This decision should be very alarming for all Pennsylvania taxpayers and communities."
For years, the courts have agreed with this position. On two occasions — once in the 1970s and once in the 1990s — they tossed out fair-funding cases. Back then, they said, venturing into the education funding debate would infringe on the powers of the Legislature.
Advocates, however, say things have changed since those rulings. New state standards better define whether students are getting a "thorough and efficient" education. Standardized tests, meanwhile, objectively gauge student progress. Courts could use that data as a roadmap, they argue, to avoid getting bogged down in technical debates.
Ultimately, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys, the high court didn't need that convincing. The justices simply didn't agree with their predecessors. And they made that known in their decision.
"Judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches," wrote Justice David Wecht in a majority opinion. "It is fair neither to the people of the Commonwealth nor the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate."
Though the decision reverses precedent in Pennsylvania, state courts elsewhere have come to similar conclusions. New Jersey, for example, has poured millions into low-income districts due to a successful education funding lawsuit.
But many worry if the judiciary intervenes in school funding cases like this, it will get sucked into myriad future cases about what's fair and what isn't. The courts, they say, will end up doing the Legislature's job. Chief Justice Thomas Saylor and Justice Max Baer dissented, and criticized their colleagues for wandering out of their constitutional lane.
"[T]he Majority has placed the judiciary in the untenable role of second-guessing the General Assembly's educational policy decisions," wrote Baer in his dissent.
The "judicial branch is ill-equipped to determine whether a particular educational scheme meets the disparate needs of the approximately 500 school districts in this Commonwealth," he continued. "Indeed, I believe that the judiciary encroaches on the General Assembly's policy and legislative roles by engaging in such determinations."
Wolf's response straddles the fence
Reactions poured in from across the state Thursday. One of the most interesting came from Gov. Tom Wolf.
Wolf, who has more political allies on the plaintiffs' side of this case, has made increased education funding one of his top legislative priorities. To this point, however, he had supported the defendants, arguing that fiduciary decisions should be left to the General Assembly.
His statement Thursday, however, seemed to praise the decision.
"Today's ruling presents an opportunity to further assure that students in Pennsylvania have access to a fair education system regardless of their ZIP code," Wolf said. "While we have made progress to invest hundreds of millions more in our schools and enact a fair funding formula that takes into account the needs of students in their districts, we know more must be done. This ruling validates my long-held position that the commonwealth must further examine the equity and adequacy of public school funding."
It's far too early to tell what might happen in the case. And it's even more premature to speculate on how the state's funding system might be altered if the courts rule the legislation hasn't met its constitutional obligations.
In Pennsylvania, districts are disproportionately reliant on local tax revenue. And for years, state dollars didn't account for which districts had higher-worth properties and could thus raise that local revenue more easily.
This confluence of factors has created, many advocates say, a massive funding gap between rich districts and the poor districts that tend to serve urban and rural communities.
"I'm telling you, folks, there are times where we just cannot compete because you have the haves and the have-nots," said Ed Alpert, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools. "And we're on the side of the have-nots."