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In a landmark school funding decision nearly a decade in the making, a Commonwealth Court judge found Tuesday that the way Pennsylvania distributes money for education is “outdated” and unconstitutional.
Half a year after arguments closed in the lawsuit, originally brought in 2014, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled in favor of the plaintiffs — a collection of six school districts, several parents and children, and two advocacy groups. In a 780-page ruling, she said the current public school funding system violates the Pa. Constitution because it disadvantages schools in areas where people have lower incomes.
“The current system of funding public education has disproportionately, negatively impacted students who attend schools in low-wealth school districts. This disparity is the result of a funding system that is heavily dependent on local tax revenue, which benefits students in high-wealth districts,” Jubelirer wrote.
The ruling is expected to be appealed to the Supreme Court. If Jubelirer’s decision stands, it could have major implications for the School District of Philadelphia, even though Philly was not officially a plaintiff.
Nearly two-thirds of students in the city are considered economically disadvantaged, and it falls in the category of a “low-wealth, high-need, high-effort, low-spending district,” Jubelierer wrote.
Philly has the state’s largest school district, but it’s one of the only districts that can’t raise taxes on its own, so it depends wholly on state and local governments for funding, with some small contributions from the federal government.
Education advocates in Philadelphia celebrated the decision.
“A HUGE order/opinion. All learners in Pa. deserve the requisite state-constitutional funding. More work to be done. Thank you to the advocates — in all iterations! A battle that began decades ago,” Reginald Streater, Philadelphia Board of Education president, posted on Twitter.
Part of the problem is that the state uses an “outdated” formula to calculate how to allocate money, the decision found.
The state had developed a new formula based on enrollment numbers and how much it costs to educate students who are living in poverty, English language learners, or have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
But a large chunk of money isn’t distributed using the new formula. Instead, local districts rely mostly on property taxes for funding, which creates a disparity between places where most residents are wealthy, Jubelirer wrote.
Gov. Josh Shapiro had previously backed the lawsuit when he was attorney general, filing an amicus brief in the case.
Jubelirer did not dictate what financial reform should look like, but suggested avenues available to address disparities were “virtually limitless” and that the governor and legislature should work with advocates to devise a new plan at “the first opportunity.”
Below are more of the responses from Philly elected officials, candidates for office, and education advocates.
This story is part of a yearlong reporting project with Temple University’s Logan Center for Urban Investigative Reporting on educational disparities within the Philadelphia School District.