The Pennsylvania Supreme Court Thursday issued its long-anticipated decision in the case of William Penn School District v. Pa. Department of Education. The case hinged on whether or not the General Assembly and governor have met the constitutional mandate of providing “for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth” is something that can be decided by the judiciary.
The case is on appeal from Commonwealth Court, which dismissed the case as being nonjusticiable, meaning that the courts are not competent to develop a standard without infringing on the policymaking role of another branch of government.
The William Penn School District, located in Delaware County, and others joining the case with an educational interest claimed that the state has failed to provide the constitutionally required educational system and that the state-local hybrid approach to funding public schools is untenable and creates disparities in education quality.
The DOE argued that the state constitution solely places the authority to determine whether there is a thorough and efficient system of public education with the General Assembly and – pointing to a new funding formula and increases in public education funding – that the judicial branch cannot adequately judge the progress being made by the lawmaking body.
The Commonwealth Court dismissed the case in April 2015, arguing prior precedent has found the issue of education adequacy to be constitutionally the prerogative of the lawmaking branches of government, especially the state General Assembly – and could not be resolved by the courts without getting into political questions not subject to judicial review.
However, the Supreme Court disagreed and, in a nearly 90-page opinion by Justice David Wecht, found the issue to be justiciable. The justices then remanded the issue back to the Commonwealth to develop a standard to determine whether or not the General Assembly and governor have lived up to the constitutional mandate.
"That the mandate charges the General Assembly with maintaining and supporting 'a thorough and efficient system of public education' by no means implies that the legislature’s efforts at doing so may be graded exclusively by that body without judicial recourse," the majority opinion reads.
Moreover, the court found that the judiciary is competent to develop a standard by which policymakers can be judged and used court decisions from other states to back up their conclusion.
“The widespread recognition that the essential concepts at issue are amenable to definition underscores the difficulty with a per se rule of non-justiciability,” Justice Wecht wrote. “It is instructive that so many other states have found claims under their respective education clauses to be justiciable, either explicitly in the face of political question challenges, or implicitly by analyzing at length the merits of the challenges at issue.”
Despite the win on the issue of justiciability, the Court noted that its opinion does not seek to provide any standard by which the education system’s thoroughness and effectiveness can be judged and notes that the schools might not prevail on the merits.
“This, of course, does not suggest that Petitioners’ claims, or those of any future litigant, should or will prevail. The parties have had no opportunity to develop the historic record concerning what, precisely, thoroughness and efficiency were intended to entail, nor have they had an opportunity to develop a record enabling assessment of the adequacy of the current funding scheme relative to any particular account of the Constitution’s meaning,” the opinion reads.
“We hold merely that Petitioners’ claims cannot be dismissed as non-justiciable.”
Should the petitioners prevail, it could have serious implications for how Pennsylvania schools are funded and how much of that money needs to come from the state.
Education advocates and some lawmakers were quick to respond Thursday with support for the decisions.
Pennsylvania State Education Association president Dolores McCracken stated that while Thursday's opinion means the courts will get involved in the issue, lawmakers should not wait until then to take action on making public education better.
“We have a new funding formula on the books and Gov. Tom Wolf and the General Assembly have worked together to nearly reverse the $1 billion in school funding that was cut in 2011. But lawmakers need to make funding our public schools a top priority," she said.
“With today’s decision, the courts may end up getting involved in resolving this issue, but elected officials shouldn’t wait. We know that we need to invest more in our public schools. The fact is that Pennsylvania is currently 46th in the nation in state funding of public schools and dead last in equity."
Gov. Tom Wolf said the court validates his past calls to examine the equity of public school funding.
“Today’s ruling presents an opportunity to further assure that students in Pennsylvania have access to a fair education system regardless of their zip code,” he said. “While we have made progress to invest hundreds of millions more in our schools and enact a fair funding formula that takes into account the needs of students in their districts, we know more must be done. This ruling validates my long-held position that the commonwealth must further examine the equity and adequacy of public school funding.”
Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke praised the ruling as well.
“The Commonwealth’s children have been starved of a ‘thorough and efficient’ education for far too long, and the current state budget impasse does not bode well for political redress in the near future. As has so often been the case in our nation’s history, the brightest glimmer of hope for justice is within our judiciary," he said. "Today’s majority opinion, while not decisive of petitioners’ complaint, does acknowledge they deserve an opportunity to pursue their case."
House Minority Leader Frank Dermody (D-Allegheny) added that the decision was a good day for the children who have been let down by the state's "long-term failure to adequately fund every school."
"The court’s action will ensure this case gets heard on the merits and I look forward to that day," he said.
A date has not yet been set for when the case might be heard on the merits in Commonwealth Court.
Jason Gottesman is the Harrisburg Bureau Chief of The PLS Reporter, a news website dedicated to covering Pennsylvania’s government.