A judge’s ruling this week that declared the state’s school funding system unconstitutional has educators and advocates in Allegheny County hopeful and concerned about the implications for area districts. 

The ruling came almost a decade after the lawsuit was first filed in 2014 by civil rights groups, parents and six school districts in other parts of the state. 

Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer highlighted disparities in spending between wealthy and low-income districts in the state’s education system, which largely relies on property taxes. 

If it survives a potential appeal to the state Supreme Court, the landmark decision could transform the way public education is funded. 

Laura Boyce, executive director of Teach Plus PA, said the ruling does not prescribe a specific remedy, outline a new distribution system or say how much funding is required but acknowledges and provides evidence that the current system is in need of reform.

The ruling sheds little light on which school districts would benefit most from a fairer funding formula and how that change will come about. 

Plaintiffs of the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center have calculated that 277 of the state’s 500 districts need more than $2,000 more per student to adequately support learning needs, based on the state’s own benchmarks. That’s a total of $4.6 billion more in annual funding.

If that funding were to be budgeted, the question would be: How will it be distributed?

Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center, said the court’s opinion made it clear that school districts with the lowest wealth, such as Sto-Rox or Baldwin-Whitehall, should receive the money that they need to provide a constitutionally compliant education. 

The existing funding formula is based on current enrollment numbers, with increased weight for students living in poverty and other factors.  

A hold-harmless provision allows school districts to receive at least as much basic education funding as they received before 2014-15, with slight increases to adjust for inflation, protecting them from the fiscal effects of declining populations. Nonetheless, school districts such as the Pittsburgh Public Schools [PPS] are seeing a gradual reduction in the rate of increase in state funding, said James Fogarty, executive director of the advocacy group A+ Schools.

As PPS continues to see an enrollment decline, it could gradually see a decrease in money coming from the state, based on the current basic education formula.

If the state eliminated the hold harmless provision, and put all of the money through the current basic education funding formula, “you would see more money going into places like Fox Chapel or Mount Lebanon because they’ve had more students go into their district, even with sort of the level of wealth that exists in those districts,” Fogarty said.

In her 786-page opinion, Jubelirer wrote that it is not sufficient to look solely at enrollment growth or at continuing hold-harmless agreements in the way that they have been applied in the past. She called for adding additional state resources to the current system.

“We don’t want to rely on an inadequate amount of money and then pit school districts against each other fighting over those crumbs,” said Mclnerney. “We need to grow the pie so that the state share is sufficient enough to meet the needs of all students.” 

Fogarty said he hoped the state would address disparities by putting additional money into the system, but added that it is unlikely that PPS will receive additional dollars. Other districts in the county such as McKeesport, Sto-Rox, Clairton and Duquesne City are likely to benefit more, he said.

Here are some of the questions local educators are asking in the wake of the judge’s ruling.

Would the schools be equitably funded?

Fogarty said school districts could make highly disparate decisions on how they spend any additional money and the challenge would be implementing a statewide equity solution, not only for the 500 school districts but also for charter schools.

Robert Scherrer, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, said needs across the county’s 42 suburban school districts range from infrastructural development and shortage of teachers or paraprofessionals to the maintenance of facilities and mental health supports. 

“They have to sort of pick and choose what takes priority over other things,” he said. 

Katrina Robson, an attorney who helped with the plaintiffs’ case, said they expect to see changes in resources in every school district in the state. The resources could include more social workers and teachers, better curriculum, safer facilities and improved preschool programs. 

Would any solutions address the needs of all school districts?

Another concern is how new funding would address needs present in schools that are, overall, adequately funded.

“Adequacy only tells you you have enough money. It doesn’t tell you are you spending that money well, and in an equitable way,” said Fogarty. 

PPS, with one of the highest per-pupil funding levels in the state, has high disparities in per-pupil funding within schools of the district, according to the A+ Schools 2022 Report to the Community. The report shows how some schools with higher concentrations of low-income students and students with disabilities receive less per-pupil funding than schools with lower concentrations of such students. 

Mclnerney noted that the ruling does not indicate that money will be taken away from school districts that are adequately funded, but is directed toward adding state resources such that all student needs are met.

Currently, school districts have control over how they want to spend the money they receive. Fogarty voiced concern over whether additional money would be spent on resources or would find its way toward higher-ups in district administrations. 

Boyce didn’t share that concern, saying that “the educators’ first priority is serving student needs and I don’t think … that they are going to take this money lightly or throw it away on things that are not pressing needs.”

She said schools are facing urgent needs in the wake of the pandemic, and that Education Secretary Khalid Mumin should ensure school districts have the guidance and support to allocate additional funding effectively. 

What should happen next?

Mclnerney said that as an immediate step, the legislators should make a “down payment on a brighter future for all students.” 

She said legislators should ensure that additional money is available and that it is targeted at low-wealth school districts. “To have the state, the General Assembly, make that commitment of infusing new additional dollars from the state out to school districts, is an important first step.”

Megan Marie Van Fossan, superintendent of the Sto-Rox School District, said she worries that additional funding won’t be coming any time soon, but is hopeful that things will change and the district will be able to provide the services that the students need.

Advocates at the Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center expect that the ruling will be appealed and they are unsure of how long the Supreme Court would take to make a decision. 

“We will just do everything we can on our end to enforce this and move it along as quickly as we can, recognizing that not everything is under our control,” said Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of the Public Interest Law Center in a press conference on Tuesday. 

However, the ruling is a historic decision bringing hope to many under-resourced school districts. 

“There were children out there who believed that they did not matter,” Robson said. “This decision tells them they do.”

Correction (2/10/23): James Fogarty’s comments on the funding trajectory of the Pittsburgh Public Schools relate to the current state funding formula and the low rate of increase in funding to the district, and not to a prospective funding formula that could arise out of the court ruling. An earlier version of this story placed those comments out of context.

Lajja Mistry is the K-12 education reporter at PublicSource. She can be reached at lajja@publicsource.org

Dakota Castro-Jarrett contributed.

Know more than you did before? Support this work with a MATCHED gift!

Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!

Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.

However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.

Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.

Lajja is the K-12 Education Reporter at PublicSource. Originally from India, she moved to the States in 2021 to pursue a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Southern California. Before...