In a scathing 86-page decision that overruled three major rulings of predecessor state supreme courts, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court held last month that there are judicially manageable standards for determining whether the state’s funding system is currently providing students a “thorough and efficient education” and that plaintiffs should have an opportunity at trial to prove that current funding levels are inadequate (William Penn Sch. Dist. et al v. Pennsylvania Department of Education). The Court’s 5-2 decision reversed a lower court ruling that had held these issues to be non-justiciable, and it firmly rejected three prior precedents that the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had issued over the past 40 years. These cases had held that challenges to the state’s education finance system were political questions that should be determined solely by the legislature with no judicial review. (For a discussion of these prior cases, see Pennsylvania litigation overview.)
In reaching its conclusion, the court reviewed extensively the history of education finance litigation throughout the United States and relied strongly on the fact that the courts in most sister states had determined that these issues were capable of effective judicial review:
The Court also noted that judicial abstention from considering these constitutional issues would mean that “the obligation to support and maintain a ‘thorough and efficient system of public education’ will jostle on equal terms with non-constitutional considerations that the people deemed unworthy of embodying in their constitution.”
The Courts’ rejection of its predecessor courts’ positions on these issues was unusually biting. It held that the prior state supreme court rulings ‘had little developed reasoning,” constituted “an unstable three-legged stool….[that can bear] little weight,” and had substantial deficiencies in “rigor, clarity and consistency.” The Court also ruled that plaintiffs’ claims that the current system was inequitable and violated the state constitution’s equal protection clause were justiciable.
The case was remanded to the trial court for further proceedings to determine 1) what precisely the constitution’s “thorough and efficient” clause means; 2)whether the state’s current school funding system is adequate in accordance with that meaning; and 3) whether the current distribution of state funds results in widespread deprivations of resources in economically disadvantaged districts.