Public School Quality, Education Funding Sufficiency, And Level Student Opportunity On Trial In Landmark Case

As if we really needed any reminders, 2021 proved again that it is easy to get folks riled about emotional issues. How about difficult problems, ones requiring keen analysis of options and bipartisan cooperation in approving and implementing fixes and reforms? Good luck with those. If an issue does not reduce to a bumper sticker slogan, much of the audience is lost.

Fortunately, there is vital debate over issues crucial to the future. Case in point, the trial before Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer in which the constitutionality of the state education funding formula is being tested. The state Constitution contains a clear statement of what the responsibility entails, but disagreements over the details of what satisfies that test are manifold.

This controversy does not break for study hall or lunch. It stretches back over fifty years, because it is interlocked with the unpopularity of property taxes as the primary method for funding education. Even though a state tax dollar spends the same as a local tax dollar, economic disparities come into play. A dollar does not stretch as far in Philadelphia as in Punxsutawney. Conversely, small rural schools cannot begin to realize economies of scale that are customary in suburban districts.

Anybody can speculate, but no one can say how this will shake out in the immediate ruling and the almost certain appeal. There are many things to be said about the proceeding. This is far above the dueling news conferences and cherry-picked statistics that are standard fare. This could be an honors biology lab, for there is much to dissect. Those challenging the system have to prove they are falling short on their absolute needs list, not their want list. Those seeking to defend the status quo are forced to show their cards, justifying the gap between what educators say is needed to fund equal opportunity for students and what state legislators are willing to budget. Each side is granted the latitude to make their case. Attempts to suppress evidence were not well received.

Arguments that play in the public arena might not prove as compelling in trial. The lawyers representing legislators point out school districts can raise local taxes, hope for increased state money, and spend down their reserves. Apparently, they did so without irony. It does not take an expert in education law and finance to understand those same options are available to state government. Legislators can raise state taxes, hope for more federal funding, and tap state reserves.

Why do they resist doing so? On the first count, most ran for office foreswearing any increase in state taxes. On the second count, conservatives are once again, under a Democratic administration in Washington, decrying elevated federal spending and the escalating national debt. So the chances of the feds coming through with a truckload or ten of cash are about nil, especially as last rites are being administered to Build Back Better. On the third count, the Rainy Day Fund is designed to be a cushion against state tax hikes during downturns or emergency situations, not to fuel ongoing spending.

The upshot – state legislators are effectively offering school officials a politically unpalatable menu of choices they themselves regularly condemn as fiscally irresponsible and unsustainable. Fair or unfair policy and politics? Pennsylvanians are about to find out, courtesy of judges they elected.

For all the years of debate, Philadelphia schools were in the vanguard of the argument. That has been a limiting factor, because they are target rich for critics, and often cringe worthy for their supporters. They exemplify the arguments of how funding inadequacy compromises educational progress. At the same time, Philly schools have often demonstrated the dysfunctions that make them loathed and ridiculed in the remainder of the state.

This is where the current trial takes on a different complexion. The congenital woes in Philly are now present in urban schools, rural schools, and even some aging suburbs.

The testimony offered by the School District of Lancaster is indicative and instructive. Their challenges do not chalk up to the standard scapegoats – waste, fraud, and abuse. Both the city and the school district are regarded as well-managed. The school district also includes territory outside the city, meaning its fortunes do not rest entirely on how the city fares. Even then, the city is testament to how civic cooperation can fuel new attractions, conversion of historic properties, cultural enrichment through immigration, and other boosts.

Yet, encouraging progress does not come with additional costs and challenges. A wide range of tax incentives are offered to developers for commercial and residential projects. As with many places, the population is in transition. As working families move out, seniors and singles move in. But growth is largely provided by immigration. Such diversity has helped the character of the community, but the costs of successful resettlement can be imposing.

Small rural schools catalog the difficulties of living with shrinking or slowly growing tax bases, coupled with the rising expenses of everything from technology acquisition to transporting students. Meanwhile, an overload of mandates requires a pyramid of paperwork that subtracts time, effort, and money from the basic mission of classroom instruction.

This is before we get to the complicating factors, such as the movement of people and enterprises based on the reputation of schools in a community. To try to divorce educational performance from economic progress is a hard argument to get across.

Despite all the evidence and expert opinion introduced during the case, a considerable bloc of taxpayers long ago concluded that public schools are a failed experiment in socialism, warping the commonwealth and mortgaging our future. Already unhappy with the status quo, they will be irate at any decision mandating greater education support. After all, state taxes come out of the same pockets as local taxes.

At this point, we have no idea how this case will be decided, or what the state Supreme Court will do with the expected appeal by the losing side. We can be sure the opinion will be anchored in thorough analysis of constitutional meaning and legislative intent. Anyone hoping for an impressionistic rendering of judicial creativity will be sorely disappointed. That is not to say the hopes of advocates have the proverbial snowball’s chance.

Here is the real kicker. No matter how the decision comes down, implementation will depend on the repair inclinations and actions of the same players who have contributed to shaping the current system.

For those who are wishing for a magical remedy – more state cash – to cure what ails public education, remember this cautionary experience. Many years ago, a desegregation case against Kansas City schools essentially put the restructuring of schools in the hands of a judge. Spending was mandated to improve facilities, add instructors and administrators, bolster curriculum, upgrade materials and equipment, items from every column of the shopping list prepared by education advocates. After an extended period of time, the district looked better and was likely run more effectively. But student performance and equity, despite all this funding and effort, still lagged in many key measures. The schools were improved, but it is much harder to move the needle on student performance than many on the outside assume.

Pennsylvania will face the same challenge. Once the trial concludes, there will be more facts on the table for policymakers to weigh, and more questions about priorities and goals available to the public to discuss. But if the lack of trust and the intense disagreements over the meaning of equity, opportunity, essential and discretionary spending, and other core precepts are not resolved, if well-educated people would rather fight over property taxes, curriculum, salaries, complement, and books on the library shelves, then this will be litigation decided, rather than problem solved. And if long-delayed solutions such as moving forward on district consolidations, utilizing shared services and courses, and reducing administrative bloat are not factored in, the complaints will not subside, and there will be another court challenge down the trail.

David A. Atkinson is an associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center.
Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.