Breaking the bank

A look a Pennsylvania legislatures decisions on the future of education.

Graphic by Eliza Liebo ’25/Staff

On November 12, 2021, Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer ruled on behalf of the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania in a decision that will have massive implications on education of students from kindergarten to twelfth grade. The final ruling spanned over 700 pages and ended a nine year dispute over whether the state of Pennsylvania has protected students’ right to equal opportunities in education regardless of financial status or social class. The landmark case began when the Public Education Law Center, Edu cation Law Center, and O’Melveny & Myers LLP filed a lawsuit on behalf of six school districts and seven parents, alleging that policymakers had not filled their contractual duty to “provide a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth” as defined by the Pennsylvania constitution. The case reached the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, gaining support from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People against state legislative leaders and the governor of Pennsylvania. Supporters asserted that the state had not invested enough resources into schools with predominantly disadvantaged student populations. On the other hand, the defendants argued that the amount of the budget allocated towards school fund ing in certain areas was a political question not answered by the constitution, and thus not under the jurisdiction of the court. Throughout the trial, over 1,700 pieces of evidence were submitted, ranging from expert testimonials to test scores and financial data.

Following extensive debate, the landmark decision ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, stating that the state of Pennsylvania has not fulfilled its constitutional obligation to provide every student with “a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, social ly, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.” The court found that the state had violated students’ right to an equal education protected under the constitution. To conclude her ruling, Judge Jubelirer wrote, “All witnesses agree that every child can learn. It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”

Although this significant decision was celebrated by the plaintiffs as a victory for all children, the path forward for lawmakers to rectify the inequalities in the Pennsylvania education system remains an ominous challenge. Jubilerer’s ruling does not outline any framework for lawmakers to build into to create policy and allocate funding to underprivileged schools: an obstacle that has all but halted similar initiatives in other states. In addition to the ambiguity of the ruling regarding future reparations, the sheer scale of creating and implementing a plan across the entire state of Pennsylvania will be a cumbersome process. In fact, the court’s ruling identifies over 400 schools which make up 86 percent of Pennsylvania’s student population as not on “a level playing field with higher-wealth districts.” According to 2018 estimates, these schools “have shortfalls totalling over $4.6 billion.” A sum of this magnitude would account for over half of the Pennsylvania Department of Education’s budget for the 2022-23 school year. The necessary restructuring of the budget would likely mean rippling effects throughout Pennsylvania’s school systems. As of now, LMSD’s future is uncertain without a clear view of how the Pennsylvania Department of Education will choose to implement a plan to fulfill their constitutional duties.

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