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 Connor Gallagher
Connor Gallagher is a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania studying Engineering.
In April 2015, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania denied a petition for review filed by the William Penn School District, five other Pennsylvania school districts, seven parents of Pennsylvania students, the Association of Rural and Small Schools, and the NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference. 
William Penn School District and its fellow petitioners claimed that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, as represented by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, the General Assembly, and the Governor, violated the Education and Equal Protection Clauses of the Pennsylvania Constitution by perpetuating the current public school funding scheme in the state.  In short, the petitioners contended that they had not been provided sufficient public resources to live up to state-enacted standards in violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
The public school financial woes began to come to light in 2007, when the State Board of Education published a government-ordered “Costing Out Study,” conducted by Augenblick, Palaich and Associates.  The report found that a whopping 94 percent of the state’s school districts, comprising 92 percent of Pennsylvania students, were spending less money than was necessary to achieve existing educational standards.  The poorest school districts needed to increase spending by more than 37 percent to achieve state goals.  Overall, it was recommended that the Commonwealth increase education spending by $4 billion per year. 
Over the next three years, the Commonwealth raised spending by only $1 billion in total.  To make matters worse, the state relied primarily on federal stimulus funds for the spending increases, granted in accordance with the Obama administration’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  These funds ran out in 2011. Consequently, the Commonwealth faced a massive shortfall in education spending.
Because the Commonwealth was facing financial obstacles, school districts had to rely on local property taxes. But poorer districts, like William Penn, have struggled to raise significant enough revenues to compensate for state funding losses. These deficits had tangible effects on petitioners. The School District of Lancaster, for instance, terminated a devastating 100 teaching positions as a result. 
Because of these and many other injustices faced by low-income districts, William Penn and its peers arrived in the Commonwealth Court, which ultimately found that their claims were “nonjusticiable political questions” barred by previous cases that held the Pennsylvania Constitution “does not confer an individual right upon each student to a particular level or quality of education.” 
Petitioners appealed to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, arguing that their claims were justiciable and that the Commonwealth Court was obligated to review their merits. In a surprising decision on September 28, and over the dissent of Chief Justice Thomas Saylor, the Supreme Court agreed.
Frequently citing legendary Chief Justice of the United States John Marshall’s opinion in Marbury v. Madison, Justice David Wecht wrote a soaring majority opinion that concluded “[i]t is a mistake to conflate legislative policy-making pursuant to a constitutional mandate with constitutional interpretation of that mandate and the minimum that it requires.”  In the Court’s view, the question of whether the “distribution of state funds results in widespread deprivations in economically disadvantaged districts of the resources necessary to attain a constitutionally adequate education” is judicially valid and has a nontrivial probability of succeeding on the merits.  The lawsuit will return to the Commonwealth Court for these further proceedings.
I write about this case because I attended a school district in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, which is also home to William Penn School District. Justice Wecht’s opinion makes frequent reference to schools I considered rivals in soccer and tennis during my middle and high school careers. It contrasts William Penn with Lower Merion School District, where “all kindergartners and first-graders have access to iPads, and all high school freshmen are issued laptops to use as their own during their high school years.”  Wecht also points to Tredyffrin-Easttown School District, which is able to raise more revenue per student while enacting property tax rates half that of William Penn. 
My old school district, Haverford, strikes a great contrast with our neighbors at William Penn as well. Like Tredyffrin-Easttown, my school district is able to enact property tax rates slightly greater than half that of William Penn, and yet, revenue per student is still approximately $2,000 greater than what William Penn can raise.  And like Lower Merion, freshmen at Haverford High School are now issued laptops for their entire high school career.  It is truly heartbreaking to see how the wealth of property values profoundly predetermines academic resources and to watch as my fellow “Delco” residents struggle to provide the requisite education to their community.
Despite the statements of the spokesman for the Pennsylvania House Republican Caucus, who pegged the Pennsylvania Supreme Court an “activist court” which “ignor[es] the clear delineation of separation of powers” and “150 years of jurisprudence,” the five justices who voted in favor of petitioners on this case were in the right.  For the Commonwealth to be so short-sighted in its financial planning and force school districts to rely so heavily on property taxes shows egregious disdain for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.
The Supreme Court of Pennsylvania acted justifiably in enforcing a constitutional clause that is, admittedly, a statement of values more so than a precise directive for state government action. William Penn likely faces a high burden in its remaining proceedings at the Commonwealth Court, which has already shown its own reluctance to take up the issue. But in a country that lacks a national constitutional prescription for educational rights, some judicial body must protect students––who cannot protect themselves––from an inferior quality of education simply because of where or how they grow up. This land of opportunity demands it.
1. William Penn Sch. Dist. v. Pa. Dep’t of Educ., 114 A.3d 456, 464 & n.15 (Pa. Cmwlth. 2015). Accessed October 14, 2017.
2. Brief of Appellants, No. 46 MAP 2015. Accessed October 14, 2017. http://www.elc-pa.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/Brief-of-Appellant-e-filed.pdf
3. Augenblick, Palaich and Associates, Inc., “Costing Out the Resources Needed to Meet Pennsylvania’s Public Education Goals,” December 2007. Accessed October 14, 2017. http://www.stateboard.education.pa.gov/Documents/Research%20Reports%20and%20Studies/PA%20Costing%20Out%20Study%20rev%2012%2007.pdf
4. William Penn Sch. Dist. v. Pa. Dep’t of Educ., No. 46 MAP 2015 (Pa. 2017), at 19. Accessed October 14, 2017. http://www.pacourts.us/assets/opinions/Supreme/out/J-82-2016mo.pdf?cb=2
5. “Costing Out”, supra n. 3, at v.
6. Ibid., at iv.
7. William Penn, supra n. 4, at 20.
9. Ibid., at 23.
10. Marrero v. Commonwealth, 739 A.2d 110 (Pa. 1999). Accessed October 14, 2017. https://www.leagle.com/decision/1999849739a2d1101844
11. William Penn, supra n. 4, at 84.
12. Ibid., at 85.
13. Ibid., at 26.
14. Ibid., at 23.
15. Dan Urevick-Ackelsburg, “Education Funding in Pennsylvania,” The Public Interest Law Center, June 20, 2016, at 8. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://www.williampennsd.org/cms/lib8/PA01916682/Centricity/Domain/4/PPTJune20WilliamPennBriefing.pdf
16. “Haverford School District – Chromebook Initiative,” January 2015. Accessed October 14, 2017. https://www.haverford.k12.pa.us/Page/11750
17. Maddie Hanna, et al., “Pa. Supreme Court opens door to school funding overhaul,” The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 28, 2017. Accessed October 14, 2017. http://www.philly.com/philly/news/pa-high-court-revives-school-funding-suit-20170928.html
Photo Credit: Flickr User T. Latterner
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.
Your comment will be posted after it is approved.
Leave a Reply.