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A decision by a Commonwealth Court judge in early February will force Pennsylvania lawmakers to reconsider how they allocate state aid to schools.
Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled on Feb. 7 that the state’s public schools funding “falls woefully short and violates students’ constitutional rights,” according to a report by the Associated Press. Jubelirer’s decision sides with poorer school districts that launched a lawsuit eight years ago for billions of dollars in state aid.
But, while the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center, both of which helped to represent the plaintiffs, hailed the decision as “a historic victory for students” that will “change the future for millions of families,” Lebanon County school administrators and legislators remain uncertain how the ruling will affect them.
“I am hopeful that this decision leads to a better solution for school funding in the future. Having said that, I don’t expect it to impact us for the 2023-2024 school year,” Gary Messinger, superintendent for Northern Lebanon School District, told LebTown.
According to the AP report, Democratic lawmakers applauded the decision, as did superintendents from poor urban and rural districts and the Philadelphia teachers’ union. A statement issued by House Democrats called the ruling a “historic decision” that will stop the state from shortchanging disadvantaged communities.
Republican lawmakers, who fought against the lawsuit, remained silent, AP reported.
It’s possible the decision could be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
“If I recall correctly, the ending of the ‘hold harmless’ policy or a full adoption of the new Basic Education Funding formula would be a mixed bag for Lebanon County school districts,” state Rep. Russ Diamond, representing the 102nd House district, told LebTown in an email.
“That said, the Commonwealth Court order stopped short of providing a remedy, leaving that up to the legislative and executive branches,” Diamond said. “It also stated that the remedy need not solely be a financial one.”
State Rep. John Schlegel, representing the 101st House district, said it’s “too soon to tell how the Court’s decision would specifically effect funding for Cornwall-Lebanon and Lebanon school districts. … An appeal of the ruling is still possible, and school districts and the General Assembly are already at work on their upcoming budgets. This is a landmark decision that would change long-established practices in the way we fund our schools, and such changes will take time.”
State Senator Chris Gebhard, representing the 48th Senatorial district, said local citizens “are fortunate to have really great public education here in Lebanon County. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case across the entire Commonwealth and this decision will likely be the catalyst for this conversation to continue.
“I am looking forward to working with my colleagues to provide an avenue so that every student has the opportunity to receive an excellent education in Pennsylvania.”
Gebhard’s chief of staff, Matthew Urban, noted that the court’s decision “is certainly going to be one of the major issues being examined this upcoming legislative session.”
“I’m not quite sure how it is going to play out just yet,” Urban said. “However, education funding has been a centerpiece of the most recent state budgets with significant spending increases in the last two budget cycles, especially for Level Up districts.”
In her nearly 800-page decision, Jubelirer said the state has failed to fulfill its constitutional obligations to the state’s poorest public schools. She said the current system deprives some students of a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary” education.
Spotlight PA, in a report on Feb. 13, said the ruling “could have a seismic impact on state finances in the coming years as policymakers face a multibillion-dollar funding disparity.”
Read More: Shapiro, Pa. lawmakers face multibillion-dollar budget question after major school funding ruling by Spotlight PA
“But should the ruling stand, new Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the divided Pennsylvania Legislature will be faced with an enormous challenge with no prescribed solution,” the article said. The state Legislature is split between the Democratic-controlled state House and Republican-controlled state Senate.
The way Pennsylvania funds public schools creates a reality in which “students attending low wealth districts are being deprived of equal protection of law,” Jubelirer wrote in her decision.
Pennsylvania uses two formulas to decide how much state money to send to each school district, one of which is generally seen as outdated and inequitable, Spotlight PA reported. Districts are then left to pad out much of their budgets through property taxes, which vary widely and tend to disproportionately burden poor areas.
“All witnesses agree that every child can learn,” wrote Jubelirer, who was elected as a Republican. “It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”
However, the ruling does not lay out a specific remedy, although Jubelirer noted that the solution does not need to be “entirely financial. The options for reform are virtually limitless.”
“Nothing in the foregoing opinion undermines the ability of the General Assembly to continue providing local control to school boards or infringes on any of the sister branches of government’s authority,” her decision says.
In a statement, Gov. Shapiro said he believes “every child in Pennsylvania should have access to a high-quality education,” although the statement avoided specific promises or timelines.
In a brief filed during his tenure as state Attorney General, Shapiro stated that the evidence “all points to the unmistakable conclusion that the General Assembly has not lived up to its obligation to provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Local schools react
Local school officials aren’t sure what to make of the ruling. Those who responded to LebTown’s request for comment are biding their time before making assumptions about the effect it might have in Lebanon County school districts.
“At this stage in the process it is unclear how this will impact Northern Lebanon,” Messinger said in an email to LebTown. “I expect a lot more discussion in the courts before we have an idea about the ramifications for individual school districts.”
“I believe it is too early in the process to make any predictions or forecast how the ruling might impact our budget,” Arthur Abrom, superintendent for Lebanon School District, noted. “We have to wait and see the plan produced by the executive and legislative branches now that the ruling has been issued.”
Krista M. Antonis, superintendent of Annville-Cleona School District, agreed: “The only response I have at this time is that since the ruling has just been issued, we believe it is too early to forecast the impact it may have on our budget, so we are not adjusting our budget for this upcoming year in relation to this ruling.”
Bernie Kepler, superintendent for Palmyra Area School District, said “it is not obvious to me that some school districts will receive more funding and others will receive less. A reduction in state funding for the Palmyra Area School District would be devastating to our local taxpayers and school district programs.
“It is our hope that the court’s decision, whereby the court has requested the executive branch and the legislative branch to determine a ‘fix’ or ‘remedy,’ does not reduce a single school district’s state funding. Although it may, I am not certain that this court ruling will necessarily impact the budgeting for 2023-2024 school-year, as the state officials will be working on a means for addressing the court’s ruling.”
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