“Education is a fundamental right guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution to all school-age children residing in the Commonwealth.” – Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer
With that one sentence, Commonwealth Court President Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer became the first Pennsylvania judge in history to expressly declare that ALL Pennsylvania children have a fundamental, constitutional right to learn in a “comprehensive, effective and contemporary system of public education.” Those 18 words in her ruling in the William Penn School District case are clear and unequivocal. They are historic, game-changing, and, yes, lifesaving for our school children both now and in future generations.
In declaring Pennsylvania’ school funding system unconstitutional because it discriminates against children in poorer school districts, Judge Jubelirer confirmed what those of us who have spent years fighting for school funding have always known – ALL kids, no matter their zip code, have a right to an education that provides them with an opportunity to succeed. And, in her 782-page opinion supporting her decision, she confirmed what we’ve also said for years – our state government has failed miserably in fulfilling its obligation to those children.
For months, Judge Jubelirer heard overwhelming evidence of the disparities in our education system. She listened to testimony and reviewed thousands of pages of document. On February 7th, 2023, she emphatically said “enough is enough.” I, and thousands of others across Pennsylvania, wholeheartedly agree.
For decades, Pennsylvania’s school funding system has failed Pennsylvanians.
It failed thousands of children in low-income school districts across Pennsylvania, from Erie to Chester, Wilkes-Barre to McKeesport, Lancaster to Johnstown, Philadelphia to Monessen.
It failed urban kids, suburban kids, and rural kids. Black kids, Brown kids, and, yes, White kids too.
It failed parents, educators, and countless others impacted by underfunded schools.
For too long, Pennsylvania has shortchanged our kids by denying them the resources they need to, in Judge Jubelirer’s words, “receive a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially and civically.”
THAT ENDS NOW.
The judge’s February 7 ruling included a mandatory call to action for elected officials to fix the unconstitutional mess that is our school funding system stating:
“It is now the obligation of the Legislature, Executive Branch, and educators, to make the constitutional promise a reality in this Commonwealth.”
I assure you my Democratic colleagues in the Pennsylvania Senate and House are ready to fix this problem. That is why on March 2nd I stood with education advocates, educators, and other elected officials to propose a 21st century education funding plan. My plan calls on the General Assembly to make a substantial down payment this year to begin to fix Pennsylvania’s inequitable, discriminatory, inadequate, and unfair funding system.
It’s clear Governor Shapiro also is ready to work to address school funding. In his budget address this month, he unveiled his own spending proposal to begin the conversation on how to respond to Judge Jubelirer’s ruling. He recognized both the issue’s complexity and the reality that it won’t be fixed overnight by one person or one political party.
Perhaps most importantly, Governor Shapiro echoed Judge Jubelirer’s “call to action.” As he said in his address, he is ready to meet us – House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, advocates, and stakeholders – at the negotiating table. He called on us to approach our responsibility with “hope and ambition – because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do right by our kids…” Count me in.
Righting this decades old wrong will take creativity, passion, and, yes, money. Luckily, Pennsylvania’s finances have never been better. By June 30, 2023, the Governor’s Budget Office estimates Pennsylvania will have excess revenue totaling $7.8 billion. In addition, the commonwealth’s Rainy Day Fund balance is $5 billion. As the Senate Democratic Appropriations Chair, I can tell you that we have the money to invest now without mortgaging our future.
Working together, we can make substantial investments to fix our toxic schools, get more teachers and staff in the classrooms, and make sure students have the counselors and mental health resources they need. We can give our students hope and a path to a brighter future. We can show our young people we are committed to making sure we fulfill their constitutional right to a quality education after decades of failure.
Thanks to Governor Shapiro and Judge Jubelirer, it’s a new day in Pennsylvania for school funding. No more excuses. The court has spoken. The Governor is ready. The General Assembly is ready. We must meet this moment.