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Attorney General Argues PA School Funding System Violates State Constitution

by Public Interest Law Center

May 18, 2022

Six amicus briefs have been filed in support of the school districts, organizations, and parents who challenged the state legislature’s failure to adequately and equitably fund public schools

In an amicus brief filed Monday evening, Attorney General Josh Shapiro, the state’s top law enforcement officer, argues that the Pennsylvania State Constitution guarantees all students the right to receive a high quality public education, and that Pennsylvania’s current school funding system fails to meet that standard. Read the brief here.

“The Court’s decision may determine the future of public education in Pennsylvania, and consequently, the strength of our economy, government, and community for generations to come,” the brief reads. “The Court should find that the Education Clause requires the General Assembly to provide all Pennsylvania children with a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary public education and rule in favor of Petitioners.”

Five other amicus briefs were filed in support of petitioners, from constitutional law professors, child advocacy organizations, teacher unions, and business and civic leaders. Taken as a whole, the briefs send a strong message: Pennsylvania students have a fundamental right under our state Constitution to receive a high-quality public education. The General Assembly is failing in their duty to ensure that right, with stark consequences for children today and the future of Pennsylvania.

Amicus briefs were due Monday, May 16.

The Education Law Center-PA and the Public Interest Law Center together represent the school districts, parents, and statewide organizations that filed a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania’s current system for funding public schools – suing legislative leaders, state education officials, and the governor in Commonwealth Court.

“This is a big deal. The people of the Commonwealth know that Pennsylvania students deserve better, and that our State Constitution demands it,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Center. “The Attorney General has made clear that our state legislature has failed to live up to this standard set by our state Constitution, and that students have paid the price.”

“The amicus briefs show the breadth of support for our case from a wide diversity of perspectives and communities – coming from constitutional law professors, child-serving organizations, teacher unions, and representatives of Pennsylvania businesses, civic organizations, and post-secondary institutions,” said Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center-PA. “These briefs make clear that our Constitution requires that all students – regardless of wealth, race, or zip code – have an education that permits them to engage in meaningful work, participate as well-informed citizens, and contribute to the viability of their communities and our state.”

One key legal issue in the case is what kind of education Pennsylvania public school students have the right to receive. Pennsylvania’s education clause — Article 3, Section 14 of the state Constitution — directs the state legislature to support “a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.” Petitioners challenging Pennsylvania’s current school funding system assert that this requires the state legislature to ensure that students in every community, regardless of wealth, race, or any other characteristic, can receive a high-quality public education that prepares them for careers, higher education, and civic participation.

Currently, petitioners claim, the state legislature is failing to live up to this duty, with insufficient state funding for public schools leading to a two-tiered system divided by local wealth.

Shapiro’s amicus brief focuses on the history of the state Constitution to make clear that petitioners’ reading of the Constitution is the right one: that all children in Pennsylvania are entitled to a “comprehensive, effective, and contemporary public school education,” not just the opportunity to attend public schools with basics like teachers, curriculum, books, and supplies.

“Despite the best efforts of the Commonwealth’s dedicated teachers and administrators, many Pennsylvania schools are not able to provide the level of education required by the Constitution — not for lack of trying, but for lack of adequate funding,” the brief reads. “The consequences — students who lack proficiency in core subjects and the tools for success in life and career —rest at the feet of the legislature.”

Below, find a complete list and short description of the other five amicus briefs filed in favor of petitioners. More information can be found in a forthcoming press kit.

  • Five professors of constitutional law from Pennsylvania law schools argue that education is a fundamental right under Pennsylvania’s Constitution, and that there is persuasive legal precedent for that conclusion from many other states where cases have been decided. Read the brief here.
  • Twenty-one child-serving and education organizations filed a brief, arguing that students in low-wealth districts require targeted programs and services to receive an adequate education and that increased school funding will improve their academic and life outcomes. Read the brief here.
  • Seventeen representatives of Pennsylvania organizations, businesses, and institutions of higher learning filed a brief, arguing that Pennsylvania must do more to meet its college- and career-ready standard, especially for students who are economically disadvantaged. Read the brief here.
  • The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, the American Federation of Teachers, and its Pennsylvania affiliate argue that education is a fundamental right under Pennsylvania’s Constitution. Read the brief here.
  • The Pennsylvania State Education Association analyzes PA Department of Education data and argues that students in low-income school districts have fewer teachers and education support professionals than their peers in wealthy districts. Read the brief here.

Amicus briefs will be followed by post-trial briefing on legal issues from both parties, with the final brief due July 15, 2022. Commonwealth Court will hold oral argument on the legal issues on July 26, 2022, at 9:30 a.m. in Courtroom 3001 of the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. The court’s decision could come several months after the July 26 oral argument.

Learn more about the case at FundOurSchoolsPA.org.

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