The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, breaking with long established precedent, has found that a court may hear a claim under the Pennsylvania Constitution related into educational funding. Interestingly, nationally this is in line with several other states that have allowed challenges to educational funding under their state constitutions.
Politics and Precedent
The case of William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, (No. 46 MAP 2015, Sept. 28, 2017) arose when several school districts, a group of students, and several other groups attempted to bring suit against the Commonwealth alleging that the manner in which Pennsylvania funds education is unconstitutional in that it violates the Pennsylvania Constitution.
More specifically, the various plaintiffs alleged that the current funding system under Pennsylvania law is unconstitutional in that it violates the requirements of Pennsylvania’s Constitution that the state provide for the support and maintenance of public education in the Commonwealth and violates the equal protection clause of the Commonwealth’s Constitution.
The plaintiffs alleged that the funding system violates these provisions in that the current funding system fails to provide adequate resources to each school district for it to provide an adequate education to all students and that the funding provided by the state discriminates against students in lower income school districts to such a degree that it denies those students the opportunity to obtain an adequate education.
The Commonwealth responded that such arguments are a political question that is not subject to court intervention. The Commonwealth Court, which first had this case, relying upon long established precedent under which courts will not interfere with political questions found that plaintiffs’ claims were not appropriate for judicial review and dismissed the case. Plaintiffs appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed.
The Supreme Court explained that while there is a thin line between what is a political question, which the courts have no authority to hear, and a constitutional question, which the courts not only can hear, but in fact are part of the duties of the court to, the issues as raised in this case were constitutional ones.
As a result, the court reversed prior case law that had found similar funding challenges were political questions outside of the authority of the court to hear, and found instead that it was a constitutional question that the court could properly hear.
Bottom Line for Schools
At this point, it is too early to tell what this case will mean as all the Court has found is that the courts can hear the case. However, it is notable that the Court broke with well-established precedent to find that educational funding issues may be heard by the courts at least in certain circumstances.
Now that the funding crisis in Pennsylvania schools has finally attained constitutional dimension, schools and public school supporters have an enhanced opportunity to advocate for legislative change.
School Law Bullets are a publication of KingSpry’s Education Law Practice Group. They are meant to be informational and do not constitute legal advice. John E. Freund, III, is our editor.