Long road ahead in school funding case
A trial in the case of William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Department of Education has been tentatively scheduled for the summer of 2020. A lawsuit over K-12 school funding provided by the state was filed by six school districts and several statewide associations in 2014.
As we noted in a Policy Brief last year, Commonwealth Court dismissed the case in April 2015 upon which it was appealed to the state Supreme Court. Last fall that court ordered the case back to Commonwealth Court for plaintiffs “to substantiate and elucidate the classification at issue and to establish the nature of the right to education, if any” which could possibly set up a judicial-legislative conflict over determining state subsidies for K-12 education.
According to the docket sheet for the case, fact discovery is to be completed by October 2019, responses, motions and replies by March 2020 and then the trial scheduled for sometime in the summer of that year.
We noted in the 2017 Brief that the process will be “messy, drawn-out and expensive” and with the tentative schedule there is at least an idea of just how drawn out it will be. Parties to the case could spend months diving into the issue of the state and local funding mix and how that produces different per-pupil funding levels. Even with the tentative date there has to be time for the court to deliberate and there possibly could be a return trip to the Supreme Court depending on the verdict.
If the Commonwealth Court decision comes in 2021, by that point six, possibly seven, years of newly appropriated basic education funding will likely have been distributed through the student weighted funding formula enacted by the General Assembly in Act 35 of 2016. That formula has been pointed to by legislative defendants named in the case as proof the state has made strides in addressing the claims of petitioners.
With a decision that might eventually order equalized spending across 500 districts there would have to be significant reductions for districts that raise revenue above the state average, largely arising from local property taxes.