The Pennsylvania state constitution guarantees its students a right to a “thorough and efficient education,” but as students in Philadelphia return to school this month, the education that they are receiving can hardly be described as either “thorough” or “efficient.” Two years ago, after Tom Corbett was elected governor and the republicans won control of both houses of the state legislature, funding for public education was drastically cut by $961 million. About one-third of the cuts impacted the Philadelphia school district. The 2013-2014 state budget restored a fraction of the reduction, but left a $726 million funding gap. These massive state cuts, combined with deficits in the Philadelphia school system’s budgets that had been developing for several years, have now created a financial crisis for the Philadelphia school system and an educational disaster for the school children.
Over the summer, facing a $304 million deficit, the system laid off 3800 teachers and other personnel. Most schools were poised to open only with a cadre of classroom teachers hosting large classes and virtually no other personnel or activities. Among other things, athletic programs were stripped bare and art and music programs virtually eliminated. Some schools could no longer afford paper, books and nurses. In August the mayor provided an emergency infusion of $50 million in local funding, which allowed about 1,560 of the 3,800 laid off employees to be recalled. This means that some personnel, instructional materials and athletic programs can be restored, but the schools still will operate this year with inadequate resources. Class sizes have greatly increased, with many classes containing more than 33 students and some with more than 40. Music and sports will only be offered in the fall semester. State leaders threaten to withhold additional aid if teachers do not agree to reduced salaries.
The irony of this situation is that a few short years ago, education finance reform advocates were hailing Pennsylvania as a paragon of fiscal stability and educational progress. In 2008, Democratic Governor Ed Rendell and the legislature had adopted a six year plan for phasing in $2.6 billion in increased funding over a six year period. Despite the advent of the recession later that year, Pennsylvania was one of the few states that kept its commitment to continue adding new state revenues to education, despite the state’s over-all fiscal pressures.
Pennsylvania’s roller coaster ride with education funding over the past few years highlights the significance of judicial intervention in fiscal equity and fiscal adequacy litigations. Pennsylvania is one of the minority of states whose courts have refused to address these claims. Although advocates have brought three separate lawsuits over the past few decades, on each occasion, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has deemed these challenges to the state’s education funding system “nonjusticiable.” In the absence of judicial oversight, or the possibility of judicial review, there seemingly is no recourse when political leaders simply ignore their constitutional responsibilities and turn a blind eye toward children’s needs.