Court Rules on Education Lawsuit

Yesterday the Commonwealth Court issued a 786 page decision in favor of the plaintiffs (including the William Penn School District and the NAACP) who had claimed that the state’s funding for education was inadequate, unequal and unconstitutional. The DelCo Times has coverage here and WHYY here. The court ruling and other documentation can be found here.

“Educators credibly testified to lacking the very resources state officials have identified as essential to student achievement, some of which are as basic as safe and temperate facilities in which children can learn,” Cohn Jubelirer wrote. “Educators also testified about being forced to choose which few students would benefit from the limited resources they could afford to provide, despite knowing more students needed those same resources.”

The ruling is expected to be appealed since paying legal fees is cheaper than providing constitutionally mandated educational services. While the governor and secretary of education are unlikely to disagree with the verdict, at least one of the legislative leaders named in the suit is likely to reject its findings. This case has already bounced around the courts for 8 years and has already been heard by the state supreme court once. At this point, most of the children affected by the state’s inadequate educational system have already graduated and moved on. By the time appeals are exhausted, few, if any, of the children it might have helped will still be in state schools.

And even if not appealed, this ruling provides no immediate relief for children. The judge did not make any specific orders for what the legislature must do to remedy the situation, leaving it up to the people that created a system riddled with inadequacy and inequality in charge of how they respond to the ruling. Given our modern political gridlock, this likely leads to inevitable future lawsuits, thus further delaying any actual help for the state’s children.

“It seems only reasonable to allow respondents, comprised of the executive and legislative branches of government and administrative agencies with expertise in the field of education, the first opportunity, in conjunction with petitioners, to devise a plan to address the constitutional deficiencies identified herein,” she said.

Decades of legislating badly indicates that no, that isn’t a reasonable assumption. And in the meantime, children will suffer real, lifelong harms.

Gov. Wolf oversaw increases of tens of millions of dollars to education during his tenure, an amount that barely kept pace with inflation. The plaintiffs, however, claim that the system is underfunded by billions of dollars, vastly more than anything I’ve seen the state legislature considering. Will the court findings change that? Not without a lot more politics.

Categories: Government