PA Education-Funding Lawsuit Opens the Floodgates for Reform

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In February, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania issued a controversial decision that could end a long-running, high-profile lawsuit over the state’s funding of public schools. The decision does not provide a specific remedy or even mandate more funding, as the litigants requested. Instead, it requires the executive and legislative branches of government to go back to the drawing board and come up with a new education policy – not necessarily a more expensive one – that doesn’t create disparities across school districts.

It was wise for the court to leave the remedy to the legislative and executive branches, avoiding any further encroachments on these branches’ authority. But the Commonwealth Court’s decision also opens the door for the judicial branch to take a leading role in educational policy for the foreseeable future.

That could be a good thing for students.

For years, Pennsylvania courts consistently avoided deciding what it meant for the General Assembly to provide a “thorough and efficient” public educational system, as the state constitution requires. Judges worried that they would find themselves in a position to decide how best to educate the commonwealth’s children, a role for which they are both unprepared and unqualified. Instead, courts insisted that the General Assembly – the more flexible, more representative, and more politically accountable branch – should figure out what “thorough and efficient” would look like.

This case changes all of that.

The Commonwealth Court concluded that the “thorough and efficient” requirement is not only a measurement for policy success but also a lofty guarantee that Pennsylvania must provide every child with “access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education” and that “every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

This new language effectively amends the state constitution, meaning that it – and future judicial decisions over the right to a thorough and efficient education – will take precedence over laws passed by the General Assembly, regulations issued by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, or policies created by local school districts.

Parents could now circumvent, even trump, the political process by suing in state court.

One inevitable result will be a flood of new lawsuits filed by angry parents represented by hungry lawyers pushing obscure educational theories on judges with no training in education policy. And that could be bad for everyone.

Pennsylvania may see expensive lawsuits over the constitutionality of poor teaching, student suspensions, ineffective school curricula, or even the nutritional quality of school lunches. The decisions in these cases may be good for the plaintiffs but wildly unpopular with the public. Either way, because the courts reached these rulings outside the normal political process, their determinations will be nearly impossible to change.

That’s the bad news. On the other hand, the new language opens up exciting possibilities for creative thinking on educational reform that Pennsylvania’s powerful teacher unions have historically buried in the legislature.

What if, for example, kids – zoned for failing, unsafe schools – now win a new right to attend a better school, across town? If the Commonwealth Court is serious about giving “every student” a “meaningful opportunity to succeed,” students in poorer areas of the state should have the same opportunities as those in wealthier areas – and shouldn’t have to wait for the school in their zip code to get its act together.

Courts could decide that the best way to accomplish educational equality is by empowering parents to choose where their children receive an education.

Or what if parents could challenge harmful policies pushed by teacher unions that protect teachers at the expense of their kids’ education? Right now, unions come to terms with school district negotiators in private meetings in which parents have little or no input. The result is a mixture of seniority preferences that reward teachers’ longevity over merit, grievance processes that make it hard to fire bad teachers, and misuse of public resources, which unions exploit to pursue their political and organizing objectives. Parents could sue to ensure that these policies either start serving the interests of students or get abolished.

If the courts are going to wade into educational policy, let’s focus on how they could do so for the better. Pennsylvania is falling behind other states like Arizona and Iowa that recently passed universal school choice programs, which empower all students to choose the education setting that works best for them. Given the proven difficulty of securing school choice options and fighting the teacher unions in Pennsylvania, maybe open-minded judges trying to work through this new area of law will prove to be better allies to our poorly educated children.

While the full implications of the court’s decision remain to be seen, the ruling could usher in new opportunities for students and families across the commonwealth, and even the nation. Other states will be watching.  

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