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Judges to decide if school funding lawsuit can proceed

March 11, 2015 GMT

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — A legal challenge to Pennsylvania’s system of funding public schools faced some hard questions Wednesday from judges who asked how a court that declares the current system unconstitutional could devise an enforceable order.

Judge Dan Pellegrini told the plaintiffs’ lawyers during the Commonwealth Court hearing to determine if the lawsuit can go forward that if their case ultimately ends up before the Supreme Court, they might want to advise the justices about how to enforce any order.

He asked what would happen if the courts request 1,000 percent funding increases, for instance, and nothing improves for the troubled schools.

“Do they have to do 2,000 percent?” Pellegrini said.

The case filed by individuals and poorer school districts argues that the state has imposed graduation exams without providing enough money to ensure sufficient numbers of students are able to pass them. The plaintiffs say the recent addition of the exams distinguishes the case from previous, unsuccessful legal challenges to the state’s education funding system.

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Much of the courtroom discussion involved whether any court could come up with “judicially manageable standards,” a set of rules that would prompt the executive or legislative branches to make meaningful improvements.

Patrick Northen, representing Republican legislative leaders, likened the case to Groundhog Day, saying the state’s appeals courts have repeatedly turned down similar challenges. He said funding issues need to be resolved through the political system, not the courts.

“People have to have the room to experiment,” Northen said.

In a court brief in January, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate wrote that the complaints in the case were profoundly political issues.

“The fact that some communities may elect to spend at high levels to support their local school system is not a constitutional violation,” they wrote.

But the plaintiffs responded last month that for some districts, local spending has not produced results.

“Low-wealth districts spend everything they can, but still come up short,” they wrote. “For these districts, the mantra of local control is a cruel illusion — not a rational basis for providing them with a fraction of the resources available to wealthier districts and turning the availability of an adequate education into an accident of geography.”

Brad Ellis, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the question is whether a reasonable relationship exists between the funding scheme and the system the government has established.

The lawsuit claims the state’s funding system violates the education and equal protection clauses of the Pennsylvania constitution and seeks an injunction to compel the state to develop a “school funding arrangement” that complies with the constitution.

In a written statement provided ahead of the hearing, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf noted that he took office earlier this year, after the case had been initiated. He said filings on Wolf’s behalf by the attorney general’s office should not be interpreted as a sign he supports the school-funding policy decisions that have been made in recent years.

Wolf’s budget address last month called for the state to increase funding for K-12 education by nearly $1 billion.