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Pennsylvania Courts Continue to Shy Away from Adequacy and Equity Cases

In November 2014, a coalition of six school districts, parents, an association of rural and small districts, and the Pennsylvania state conference of the NAACP filed suit in William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Educationalleging that the state’s funding scheme violated the equal protection and education clauses of the Pennsylvania constitution.  Aware of prior courts’ reluctance to hear such cases because of separation of power concerns, the plaintiffs in this case sought to tie the constitutional concept of an adequate education to academic standards established by the legislature in order to convince the judges that there were manageable standards for determining whether the legislature had satisfied its constitutional obligations.  Plaintiffs also asked the court to recognize education as an affirmative constitutional right of each student in the state.

So far, plaintiffs’ strategy has not proved successful. On April 21, 2015,  the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania dismissed plaintiffs’ action, again citing separation of power grounds.  President Judge Pelligrini in his decision cited extensively to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s prior decisions in Danson v. Casey, 399 A.2d 360 (Pa. 1979), and Marrero v. Commonwealth, 709 A.2d 956, 959 (Pa. Cmwlth. 1998), aff’d, 739 A.2d 110 (Pa. 1999) (Marrero II), Judge Pelligrini asserted that it would be “‘contrary’ to the ‘essence’ of the Education Clause ‘for this Court to bind future Legislatures and school boards to a present judicial review of a constitutionally required ‘normal’ program of education services ….”  The court also rejected plaintiffs’ arguments that the educational funding targets established by the legislature, which the legislature has failed to meet for several successive years, provided the court with judicially manageable standards to determine if the state has satisfied its constitutional duty to support a “thorough and efficient” public education system.  Decisions about what constitutes adequate funding, according to the court, involve policy questions and, therefore, such decisions are the sole prerogative of the legislature under the Pennsylvania constitution.  Finally, the court expressed its agreement with the Marrero II assertion that “expenditures are not the exclusive yardstick of educational quality, or even constitutional quantity.”

Judge Pelligrini also declined to declare education an affirmative constitutional right of each child in the state. Rather, like the Marrero II court before him, Judge Pelligrini narrowly interpreted the state’s education clause.  In his view, the Pennsylvania education clause applies only to the legislature, and even then, it establishes a constitutional duty for the legislature to establish a maintain a thorough and efficient system of schools. The provision, according to the court, does not contemplate for individual children or parents to enforce these rights through the courts.

Because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has twice rejected judicial review in education adequacy cases, it is not likely that a lower court would issue a decision inconsistent with that stance. Accordingly, plaintiffs have indicated that they intend to appeal this decision to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court and to ask that Court to reconsider its position, based on new standards and other developments that have occurred since it issued its prior rulings.

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