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Can Courts Determine if General Assembly is Doing its Job?

Plaintiffs say the General Assembly is not meeting its obligation to support public education.  (alegri/4freephotos.com)
Plaintiffs say the General Assembly is not meeting its obligation to support public education. (alegri/4freephotos.com)
September 12, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — At a hearing on Tuesday, the state Supreme Court will consider whether courts can determine if the General Assembly is adequately funding public schools.

In 2014, education advocates filed a lawsuit claiming lawmakers violated the Pennsylvania Constitution by failing to adequately and equitably fund public education. In 2015, the Commonwealth Court ruled that it has no jurisdiction to intervene in determining education funding matters.

But Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said this isn't just about money.

"We believe that the court has a role to play in interpreting the state constitution,” Klehr explained. "The court's core function is to enforce our constitution and our constitution's education clause and equal-protection provisions."

Lawyers for the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center will ask the Supreme Court to allow their lawsuit to go to trial.

Pennsylvania's school funding is among the most inequitable in the country. And while the Legislature has passed a fair funding formula, Klehr said the formula itself doesn't increase funding, and it only applies to a small portion of the total education budget.

"It only applies to about six percent of basic education funding and one percent of all of the education funding,” Klehr said; "meaning that the vast majority of state education dollars are still being allocated in ways that reinforce Pennsylvania's gross inequities."

Tuesday's hearing will not consider the adequacy of state spending on schools or how that spending should be allocated. Those arguments would be for a trial court.

Klehr stressed that what they are asking the Supreme Court to do is give the plaintiffs their day in court.

"These school districts, these parents, these statewide organizations deserve to have a trial to show that the General Assembly is not currently meeting its constitutional responsibilities,” Klehr said.

More information is available here.

Andrea Sears, Public News Service - PA