Stare decisis? What stare decisis in Pa. school funding case?

Stare decisis? What stare decisis in Pa. school funding case?

It certainly is more than worth noting the anomaly that is September’s Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court ruling regarding the latest challenge to the constitutionality of the commonwealth’s public school funding methodology.


The state’s highest court held that the matter indeed is justiciable – and not necessarily the sole purview of the General Assembly – and sent the case back to the Commonwealth Court.


That, to at least allow the plaintiffs in the latest challenge – Delaware County’s William Penn School District, et al. – to attempt to make their case.


But at its base, the Supreme Court’s ruling should be considered an outlier. After all, for nearly 40 years, trial and appeals courts in Penn’s Wood have ruled the exact opposite, including the state Supreme Court.


A history of the funding debate by the Education Law Center, a supporter of the latest legal challenge, is most instructive.


It was in 1979’s Danson v. Casey that the high court found the matter to be non-justiciable – that is, the matter being the sole purview of the legislative branch. The plaintiff alleged the school funding system to be unconstitutional because it allocated insufficient money to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the commonwealth.”


Twice again, in 1998, the courts refused to become legislators.


In Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools v.Ridge, a trial court dismissed claims of “adequacy” and “equity” as non-justiciable. And in Marrero v. Commonwealth, an appellate court found the same regarding claims of “inadequate funding” and “inadequate education.”


But in the William Penn case, the current Supreme Court, ruling 5-2, last month curiously included this in its rationale:


“It is instructive that so many other states have found claims under their respective (constitutional) education clauses to be justiciable, either explicitly in the face of political question challenges, or implicitly by analyzing at length the merits of the challenges at issue.”


But we’re not “so many other states.” We’re Pennsylvania. And never mind four decades of legal precedents by Keystone State courts. So much for stare decisis, the common law doctrine that court decisions should be guided by precedent.


The can of worms opened – should the plaintiffs prevail on rehearing in Commonwealth Court (and even high court jurists view that as a tall wall to scale) – the matter could end up in a seemingly never-ending swamp of litigation.


That, tragically, could result in a further violation of the sacrosanct separation of powers, not to mention schools run not by the people but by the courts.


Nearly six years after Pittsburgh’s old Civic Arena was demolished, redevelopment of the 28-acre site is nothing to brag about.


Oh, some public infrastructure is in place. But any real progress is bogged down by this latest escapade in central planning.


The Penguins were handed exclusive development rights in a sweetheart government deal. Yet, the franchise, claiming environmental problems at the site, this month is expected to file for yet another extension to get things rolling, the Tribune-Review reports.


Dare it be said – again: Had these Lower Hill District tracts been offered to the highest bidders, development would have been well underway long ago.


And dare it be said – again: The piecemeal development of this large site surely would have been more organic and sustainable (i.e. diverse, eclectic and market-based) than any market-perverting, government-overlorded central plan.


Colin McNickle is a senior fellow and media specialist at the Allegheny Institute for Public Policy (