July 26, 2022 – As the parties gathered in court one final time on Tuesday to argue the legal issues, attorneys for petitioner districts, families, and organizations in Pennsylvania’s historic school funding trial highlighted the promise of a high-quality school system for all students spelled out in the state Constitution that they contend remains unrealized for hundreds of thousands of students in low-wealth districts.
The day-long session featured clashes of views between attorneys for the petitioners and legislative respondents over questions like whether the Constitution guarantees a right to education and whether it mandates a “high-quality, contemporary education” or simply a “minimum basic education.”
Throughout the session, Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer asked questions of the attorneys. The case now awaits her decision, which could take several months.
“Almost 150 years ago, the Commonwealth enshrined the right to education in its Constitution, and it didn’t just guarantee an education – it specified the quality of that education,” said petitioner attorney Katrina Robson in opening the argument.
“The framers could have promised only a system of schools; some states did that – they stopped right there,” Robson said. “Here in the commonwealth, the delegates imposed on the General Assembly a mandate to provide a system of education that was ‘thorough and efficient.’ Those words are critical, they have meaning, and they are why we are here today.”
In fact, Robson explained, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court “invited this court to give meaning to those words” when it remanded the case to Commonwealth Court in 2017.
What the Constitution Requires
In writing the education clause of the Constitution, petitioners have argued, the drafters used the phrase “thorough and efficient” to mean “complete” and “effective,” and their constitutional language from 1874 was aimed at ensuring a right for all children to a quality education that prepares them to meet the demands of the time and to function as active citizens in a democracy.
Petitioner attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg offered guidance to the court on what this education clause standard requires today, urging a declaration from the court that “the General Assembly shall provide all Pennsylvania students with a contemporary, high-quality, effective public education … which prepares them to be college and career ready, allows them to meet their potential, promotes democracy and citizenship, and provides Pennsylvania with a competitive, capable workforce.”
The current system fails to meet that mandate, leaving students in low-wealth districts without sufficient teachers, counselors, or instructional materials — all things, Urevick-Acklelsberg said, that “there was largely consensus in this litigation actually makes a difference for children.”
“The evidence shows, when you look at the resources districts can bring to bear and the outcomes they’re able to achieve, that the system is not meeting its mandate,” he said. Pennsylvania has a system that is “inadequate, it’s inequitable, it’s illogical.”
In a presentation on behalf of the governor and secretary of education, attorney Sophia Lee expressed a view similar to petitioners regarding the state Constitution’s meaning: “The text of the education clause and the evidence at trial support the view that a thorough and efficient system is one which provides a meaningful opportunity for substantially all children to achieve academic, social, and civic success.”
“The evidence shows, when you look at the resources districts can bring to bear and the outcomes they’re able to achieve, that the system is not meeting its mandate.”
But attorneys for the legislative respondents asked the court to take a much narrower view of what the Constitution requires.
Attorney Tom DeCesar, who along with fellow attorney Anthony Holtzman represented Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, argued that all that is required by the Constitution is ensuring a “standard basic education.” He cited just four necessary ingredients: “a standard curriculum, appropriate teachers, safe buildings, and basic instrumentalities of education.”
Legislative respondents urged the court to adopt their view that changes made to modernize the Constitution’s education clause in 1967 transformed the education clause’s meaning. Attorney Holtzman argued that the 1967 revisions, which removed the phrase “[public schools] wherein all the children of this Commonwealth above the age of six years may be educated” and replaced it with the phrase “to serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” eliminated “a right to receive an education.”
Petitioners emphasized that there was no discussion or documentation in 1967 indicating any intention to take away the right to education from children – history that Judge Jubelirer referenced in her questioning. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has taken the position that the clause has been in the Pennsylvania Constitution in “materially the same form since 1874.”
How to Measure Adequacy
The parties also took different views about how today’s school funding system should be evaluated. Petitioners argued that in order to determine whether the system is adequately funded, outcomes — measures of whether or not students are learning and achieving educational goals — must be considered along with resources available in schools (or inputs).
But DeCesar said the standard should be “inputs only.”
Patrick Northen, his counterpart representing House Speaker Bryan Cutler, agreed, dismissing the possibility that there was any “judicially manageable” way to use student outcomes to evaluate the school system at all.
However, disparities in outcomes and disparities in resources are clearly linked, Robson said, referencing evidence produced at trial. She said that “the districts where we see these low rates of proficiency and the low graduation rates as well are the same districts that lack the key resources, supports, and interventions that are known to improve student achievement.”
Executive respondents’ attorney Lee agreed with the premise that outputs as well as inputs must be considered in determining whether the system is adequately funded, saying, “The outcomes are the evidence of the adequacy and the quality of the inputs.”
“The evidence is clear: The Constitution has been violated”
Petitioner attorney Urevick-Ackelsberg explained how other states have been able to create manageable standards for deciding whether funding is adequate. “What courts generally do is look at the funding scheme overall, the funding available overall, look at the resources that districts can bring to bear and look to see how the system is actually functioning,” he said.
In concluding remarks rebutting the legislative respondents, Urevick-Ackelsberg reviewed evidence from trial about funding deprivations statewide as well as testimony from Pennsylvania’s former top K-12 official that funding gaps are one of the “root causes” of the state’s vast achievement gaps.
“There is a root cause problem here, and it’s been established across the commonwealth,” he said.
“The evidence is clear: The Constitution has been violated.”