Will The State Supreme Court Next Impose An Education Funding Map?

             That the reconstituted Democrat-controlled state Supreme Court would invalidate the Republican-crafted congressional district lines approved in 2011 was not a complete shock to political observers.  Nor was it altogether surprising that the justices would then dictate parameters of their preferred remedy.  But arrogating responsibility for imposing a new map, in conflict with language in the state Constitution, was a stunner for a lot of folks.  The complications arising from this quintessential act of judicial legislating will be argued over for years to come.

The court’s apparent overreach brings to mind the vintage line attributed to Timothy Campbell, delivered when President Grover Cleveland refused to embrace a constitutionally questionable plan: “What is the constitution between friends?”

Obviously, when the top state court acts in collision with its time-honored responsibility to guard against breaches of constitutional principles, it is much more than a casual matter between friends.  With no sign of retreat or rethinking on the part of the court majority, a question naturally occurs: Does this constitutional crisis foreshadow another ahead?  We probably do not need Sherlock Holmes to sleuth out the answer.

The next bombshell ruling in the queue could be a dismantling of the state education funding system.  In our system of federalism, education is the province of the states, despite frequent incursions by Washington since the Carter-era creation of a federal education department.  Pennsylvania’s system for funding education has been under legal assault for four decades. To the frustration of education interests, state courts have been notably reluctant to insinuate themselves into this political question.  The last time the court dug deeply into the issue, they found that the correlation between spending and outcomes was not as crystal clear as advocates contended.

Given this history, education advocates are undoubtedly encouraged by the state Supreme Court’s undisguised activism on redistricting.  When the Supreme Court recently nixed a Commonwealth Court judgment that education funding is a political question within the powers of the General Assembly, that fueled supposition a dramatic shift could be in the offing.

The current court may be ready to override the restraint shown by its predecessors and come up with a judicially determined definition of a thorough and efficient system of education.  If so, the controversy will rise the farther a decision goes, as with redistricting.  The justices could decide to dictate funding levels, plus impose a distribution formula, plus order the General Assembly and the governor to go raise the money.  After all, the redistricting decision showed no reluctance to go all in.

Just as it was easy to locate someone willing to draw a friendlier, more aesthetically pleasing congressional map, the justices will have no trouble finding experts eager to design an education funding system that will make local school administrators swoon with amour.  And as a collateral consequence, put taxpayers into deeper revolt.

The redistricting dispute was partisan, pitting Republicans against Democrats.  Education funding breaks down more along philosophical lines, liberal versus conservative, state control versus local control.  And regionally, according to the level of public antipathy toward property taxes.  The common element would be breaching the separation of powers, as understood for generations.

Of course, there is a big difference between expounding political theory and having events play out as planned.  As political line drawers have learned over the decades, electoral outcomes can deviate wildly from the intent and projections of the crafters.  There is plenty of evidence strongly suggesting the absence of an inerrant education equation where good intentions+ more money = better results.

Pennsylvania is unique in many respects.  That does not mean other state experience should be readily dismissed.  Look at the record for the nearly twenty-year period when a federal judge effectively ran the Kansas City schools in response to a desegregation lawsuit.  Spending went up dramatically, facilities were improved, top-grade technology was acquired, and the instructional and administrative staffs bolstered.  Yet all this effort and investment barely budged the meter on crucial student measures. Which accounts for why the experiment eventually ended.  This does not mean case closed for more investment in education.  Rather, it is a warning against believing judges possess pixie dust to sprinkle and solve complex policy problems that defy resolution by legislators and governors.

How do power plays across the separation of powers work out?  Just so happens there is an instructive parallel in Pennsylvania’s experience.  Decades ago, the state Supreme Court ruled that state government was responsible for funding the unified judicial system.  A prolonged and bitter constitutional clash ensued.  At one point, a special master was appointed to help negotiate a solution.  State funding increased significantly, but never rose to the level the counties pushed for or became as all-encompassing as they wished.  Funding remains a shared responsibility.

This conjunction of litigation over redistricting and education funding provides an intriguing contrast.  We fully accept the constitutional premise that the lines demarcating political representation should be adjusted every ten years to reflect population shifts.  Oddly, school district lines in place for fifty years are regarded as inviolate, despite population shifts, economic upheavals and transformations, demographic changes, local development or decline, and other factors.  Solutions are drawn to try and fit 500 boxes, rather than conceding the boxes are exacerbating problems and driving up costs.  This situation can be looked at another way as well.  Why do economics and finances force municipalities to share some key services, but so few school districts consider such arrangements?  Failure to explore other remedies undermines the case for more money being the only difference maker.

Sure, we live in an era where immediate gratification and satisfaction are demanded.  Rushing a result in redistricting and blowing past constitutional barriers will have repercussions and recriminations.  It also serves as a warning that a judicially imposed education funding system will provoke controversy and complications on a more seismic level.

David A. Atkinson is a Research Fellow with the Susquehanna Valley Center’s Edward H. Arnold Institute for Policy Studies.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation before the General Assembly.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.