Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Cary Holley
Cary Holley is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Political Science.
While public education has experienced growth in the United States, it has been accompanied by increasingly grave disparities in both the access to and quality of public education for children across the country. The failure of state legislatures to provide satisfactory reform has initiated a wave of lawsuits nationwide. The hope for a judicial remedy to the serious education problem in our country is becoming a national phenomenon, and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is no exception. A multi-year lawsuit, first filed in 2015, by Pennsylvania schools against the Pennsylvania Department of Education and other parties has recently progressed with unclear implications about the possibility of true reform.
The Education Clause of Pennsylvania’s Constitution states the aim to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”  This language is clearly vague, and is thus open to interpretation. Noticeably absent from this definition, however, is any expectation of uniform thoroughness or efficiency. This was no oversight. The framers of the 1874 Constitution decided against putting the word “uniform” in the Education Clause because they feared that mandating uniformity across such diverse districts would severely constrict schools’ abilities to modify lesson plans for the needs of their specific communities. As the Constitution went through more changes over time, the word “uniform” was continuously and purposely avoided. 
While there is general consensus against the concept of a uniform public education system, there are still disputes over how to ensure that the system is fair to all. In Pennsylvania, the disparities in resources among schools reflect severe underfunding, rather than differences that are appropriate for particular communities. While some students receive laptops and iPads from their schools, others use outdated textbooks and attend classes in damaged buildings.  More than a discrepancy based on income-level, a 2015 study by data scientist David Mosenkis indicated that “just the increased presence of minority students actually deflated a district’s funding level.”  In 2015, several Pennsylvania school districts, parents, the Pennsylvania NAACP and others took the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Senate, House of Representatives, Governor and others to court.
The petitioners (William Penn School District et. al) made two central arguments: the Pennsylvania legislature had not fulfilled the pledges of the Education Clause and the “hybrid state-local” finance plan resulted in further disparity among districts.  Although there was ample evidence and a strong case to be made about the deficiencies in education resources for poorer communities, this was not the main question before the court. Rather than examining whether the grave disparities in Pennsylvania’s education system constituted a violation of the Constitution, the Court first had to assess whether they had the right to hear this case or whether it was a non-justiciable political question. If a court finds an issue to be too politically charged, they may decide against hearing that issue.This phenomenon is known as the political question doctrine, and has been applied in court cases since the early 20th century.  In William Penn School District et. al v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et. al, the Court partially based their decision on the famous 1962 Baker case. In Baker v. Carr, the Supreme Court of the United States set the precedent that “federal courts should not hear cases which deal directly with issues that the Constitution makes the sole responsibility of the Executive Branch and/or Legislative Branch.”  In 2015 the Commonwealth Court ruled that this case was in fact a political question and thus out of their jurisdiction.
In September of 2016, the Commonwealth Court’s decision was appealed to the Middle District Supreme Court of Pennsylvania. The petitioners framed their issues for the appeal as: “(A) Does the political question doctrine prevent the judiciary from judging whether the legislature complied with its Constitutional duty? (B) Does the political question doctrine prevent students from poorer districts from asserting their rights to equal protection under the law?”  On September 28, 2017, the Court reversed their previous decision and ruled that both the equal protection claims and their responsibility to monitor the legislature were not non-justiciable aims.
In the end, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court decided that it was in their purview to judge the actions, or lack thereof, of the legislature. Initially, Governor Tom Wolf opposed the suit and “had argued that funding decisions should be left to the legislative and executive branches” (Governor Wolf has since reversed this stance).  Still, the Court proceeded. However, an important question lingers: what happens now? The long-term, exhaustive reform that the Pennsylvania school system needs will require a concerted effort. Although the three branches are sometimes viewed as wholly unaffiliated entities, it is vital to remember the importance of their ability to orchestrate a successful, coordinated policy. If a multilateral solution cannot be fashioned for an aim as agreeable as fair access to good public education, then there is little hope for much else.
 William Penn School District et. al v. Pennsylvania Department of Education et. al. Supreme Court of Pennsylvania Middle District. 2017.
 White, Gillian. “The Data Are Damning: How Race Influences School Funding.” The Atlantic. September 30, 2015. Accessed January 31, 2017.
 “Political Question Doctrine.” Wex Legal Dictionary, Cornell Law School. Accessed January 31, 2017.
 Wolfman-Arent, Avi. “Changing course, Gov. Wolf asks courts to rule on Pa. education lawsuit.” WHYY. January 26, 2018. Accessed February 5, 2018.
Photo Credit: Flickr user Nick Amoscato
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.