Almost a year ago, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court denied the state defendants’ motion to dismiss plaintiffs’ claims that the state’s school funding formula is unconstitutional in that it denies children in property-poor districts both an adequate and an equal educational opportunity, and remanded the case to the Commonwealth Court for further proceedings and a trial. Subsequently, the state’s legislative leaders (but not Governor Tom Wolf who is also a defendant), filed motions asking the Commonwealth Court to consider dismissing the complaint based on certain preliminary legal objections that they had raised but which, they allege, were not covered by the Supreme Court’s decision. Most of these objections were denied by the Commonwealth Court last May.
The Court’s May 7 Order did permit the parties to submit further arguments on the question of whether the passage in 2016, after the complaint had been filed, of a new education finance statute (Act 35) mooted the plaintiff’s basic claims. Republican Senate Majority Leader Joseph Scarnati, Democratic Governor Tom Wolf and the plaintiffs submitted supplemental briefs addressing this point over the past few weeks.
Scarnati argued that the plaintiffs’ challenge focused on the prior statute and that the plaintiff districts have received substantial additional funding under the new formula which specifically takes into account district wealth, number of students in poverty, charter schools and other factors. Plaintiffs argued in response that Act 35 only applies to new money received by school districts but that base funding amounts that existed prior to 2016 are still provided to all school districts; in fact, less than 10% of state funding distributed since 2016 has been determined by the new Act 35 formula. Gov. Wolf’s brief, also filed on behalf of the state education department and the other executive defendants, agreed with the plaintiffs’ position that the basic issue is whether students in the plaintiff low income districts are receiving an adequate and equitable education and not the details of an isolated statutory enactment.