Don’t appeal school ruling; fix funding

Scranton Times-Tribune (AP)

Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer’s historic decision on school funding honors the state constitution’s clear intent to ensure that all children have access to a decent education.

In a 786-page ruling, she found unconstitutional the method by which the state government partially funds public schools, largely along lines alleged by six underfunded school districts, some parents and several education advocacy organizations who brought the case.

The constitution, she found, was “clearly, palpably, and plainly violated because of a failure to provide all students with access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education that will give them a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

FILE - The exterior of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center, home to the Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, Pa., is pictured on Nov. 6, 2020. A Pennsylvania judge ruled Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2023, that the state's funding of public education falls woefully short, siding with poorer districts in a lawsuit that was first filed eight years ago. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez, File)

Pennsylvania’s government, in effect, has two systems for distributing $7.4 billion in education funding, only about 35% of total public education spending. The Legislature adopted a “fair funding” formula in 2015, thus acknowledging that the previous formula had become unfair. But, because lawmakers did not want to diminish funding to some districts, it decided to distribute fairly only the money that it appropriated after 2015. The result is that the new, fair formula applies to less than 20% of all state education funding.

Underfunded districts — like those in Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton — must make up the shortfall through local property taxes.

Because of vast disparities in wealth and the tax bases across the state’s 500 school districts, many districts are underfunded relative to more affluent districts.

Jubelirer’s order invalidates the system but does not specify how to fix it, which she left to the Legislature and governor. “The options for reform are virtually limitless,” she wrote.

True enough. But, this being Pennsylvania, the options for lawmakers to evade their responsibility for fair funding also are limitless.

The decision is appealable by Gov. Josh Shapiro, who likely will not do so given his support, as attorney general, for the underlying litigation, and by House Republicans.

Shapiro should get the reform ball rolling by proposing effective reforms in his upcoming budget address. And rather than appeal to buy time against reform, legislative Republicans should engage in the process so that access to public education is not determined by ZIP code alone.

— From the Scranton Times-Tribune (AP).