Pennsylvania’s method of funding schools ruled unconstitutional
In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Pa. | Matt Slocum/AP

PHILADELPHIA—The students of Philadelphia and their supporters won a landmark victory last week. On February 7, 2023 Commonwealth Court President, Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer, ruled that the constitutional rights of Pennsylvania children have been violated under the current education funding system.

The Pennsylvania constitution calls for the “maintenance and support of a through and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” The current school funding formula relies on local property taxes, resulting in wealthy school districts having good schools while low-wealth districts have inadequate, under-resourced schools. The judge ordered the governor and legislature to come up with a plan to fix the system.

The Education Law Center, representing six school districts, two organizations (NAACP State conference and the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools), and three parents, brought a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Legislature, the Department of Education, and the governor in 2014. But the lawsuit was not heard until November, 2021.

The trial lasted more than a year. Dozens of witnesses testified.

The poorest school districts have the greatest needs but receive the least amount of funding. More than 50% of Pennsylvania’s Black students and 40% of Latinx students are in the poorest school districts. Less of these students graduate from high school. Less go to college or graduate from college. The majority of the students in these schools are not reading or doing math on grade level.

The School District of Philadelphia was not part of the lawsuit because it had been taken over by the state. Superintendent Dr. Hite closed 24 schools, cut 4,000 staff—nurses, librarians, counselors and art, music and reading specialists in order to balance the budget in 2012-13. All the cuts were never restored.

The School District of Philadelphia and its students were devastated. A 2018 inspection of school buildings found decades of deterioration. Repairs, replacement and removal of toxic materials will cost $4.5 billion. When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, in 2020, conditions worsened.

When all schools closed and education went digital, 46% of the students were not engaged in learning. Many Philadelphians believe that the disinvestment in education is a factor in Philadelphia being the “poorest” of the ten largest U.S. cities, with 23.3% of residents living at or below the poverty line in 2019. In 2011 it was over 28% decreasing to 22.3% in 2022.

The poverty rate in Latinx communities is 40.2% and in Black communities 26.7%. In impoverished neighborhoods, the highest rates of violence and shootings exist. Children and youth have been traumatized by the violence. There is a direct relationship between education, poverty and crime. It is estimated that funding for Philadelphia students is short by $5,583 per student.

Pennsylvania ranks 47th in state funding for schools in the U.S. For many decades education advocates and the unions representing teachers and school employees have struggled for quality, equitable public education for all children and youth.

There must be an organized effort to demand the State Legislature and Gov. Shapiro to fund our schools in a fair and equitable manner immediately. The needs of the Commonwealth must be served as written in the state constitution.

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Rosita Johnson
Rosita Johnson

Retired Philadelphia public school teacher Rosita Johnson has devoted her time and energy in organizing material assistance to South African students and teachers before and after the defeat of apartheid.