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William Penn School District v. Pennsylvania Dep't of Education

Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania

April 21, 2015

William Penn School District; Panther Valley School District; the School District of Lancaster; Greater Johnstown School District; Wilkes-Barre Area School District; Shenandoah Valley School District; Jamella and Bryant Miller, parents of K.M., a minor; Sheila Armstrong, parent of S.A., minor; Tyesha Strickland, parent of E.T., minor; Angel Martinez, parent of A.M., minor; Barbara Nemeth, parent of C.M., minor; Tracey Hughes, parent of P.M.H., minor; Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools; and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People-Pennsylvania State Conference, Petitioners
v.
Pennsylvania Department of Education; Joseph B. Scarnati III, in his official capacity as President Pro-Tempore of the Pennsylvania Senate; Michael C. Turzai, in his official capacity as the Speaker of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives; Thomas W. Corbett, in his official capacity as the Governor of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania; Pennsylvania State Board of Education; and Carolyn Dumaresq, in her official capacity as the Acting Secretary of Education, Respondents

Argued: March 11, 2015.

Court of ORIGINAL JURISDICTION.

Brad M. Elias, New York, NY, for petitioners.

Lucy E. Fritz, Deputy Attorney General, Harrisburg, for respondents Pennsylvania Department of Education, Thomas W. Corbett, Pennsylvania State Board of Education and Carolyn Dumaresq.

Patrick M. Northen, Philadelphia, for respondents Joseph B. Scarnati, III, Samuel H. Smith and Michael C. Turzai.

BEFORE: HONORABLE DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge, HONORABLE BERNARD L. McGINLEY, Judge, HONORABLE ROBERT SIMPSON, Judge, HONORABLE MARY HANNAH LEAVITT, Judge, HONORABLE P. KEVIN BROBSON, Judge, HONORABLE PATRICIA A. McCULLOUGH, Judge, HONORABLE ANNE E. COVEY, Judge. OPINION BY PRESIDENT JUDGE PELLEGRINI. Judge Cohn Jubelirer did not participate in the decision of this case.

OPINION

Page 457

DAN PELLEGRINI, President Judge

Before this Court are the preliminary objections filed by the Respondents[1] to the petition for review filed by public school districts that allege that they are underfunded; individual parents of students attending public school; and organizations

Page 458

advocating for the school districts and the students (collectively, Petitioners)[2] seeking declaratory and injunctive relief because the current public school funding scheme purportedly violates the Education[3] and Equal Protection[4] Clauses of the Pennsylvania Constitution. We sustain the preliminary objections and dismiss the petition for review.

I.

Petitioners filed this petition for review in our original jurisdiction seeking declaratory and injunctive relief alleging that the Education Clause creates a fundamental right for every school-aged child to attend free public schools and an opportunity to obtain an adequate education as defined in the Department's regulations.[5]

In Count I, Petitioners assert that through the enactment of statewide academic standards[6] and assessments[7] such as the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA)[8] and Keystone examinations,[9] Respondents have defined the content of the public education system and the

Page 459

level of proficiency that the individual students must attain in order to meet the requirements of the Education Clause. (Petition for Review at ¶ 302).[10] Petitioners also contend that the Commonwealth's academic Common Core standards[11] set forth a prescribed course of study for students and a progression from grade-to-grade that forms the core of the Commonwealth's public education system. ( Id. at ¶ 303). Petitioners argue that Respondents have violated their constitutional duties by failing to provide sufficient resources to meet those standards because the current funding levels are irrational, arbitrary and not reasonably calculated to ensure that all students are provided with the required course of study or services or obtain the required proficiency in the subject areas.

Page 460

( Id. at ¶ ¶ 304, 305).[12]

In Count II, Petitioners assert that an education is a fundamental right of every student and imposes a duty on Respondents to ensure that every student is treated equally and has the same fundamental opportunity to meet academic standards and obtain an adequate education and prohibits Legislative Branch Respondents from irrationally enacting laws that benefit a select few. (Petition for Review at ¶ ¶ 308-309). Petitioners contend that Respondents violated the Equal Protection Clause by adopting a school funding program that discriminates against the identifiable class of students living in low-income and low-property value districts and denying them an equal opportunity to obtain an adequate education. ( Id. at ¶ 310). Petitioners allege that there are many available funding methodologies that retain local control without discriminating against students living in low-income and low-property value districts. ( Id. at ¶ 311).

Page 461

As a result, Petitioners ask this Court to declare:

(1) public education is a fundamental right to all school-age children;
(2) the Education Clause requires Respondents to provide support to ensure that all students obtain an adequate education to meet state academic standards and meaningful participation in the civic, economic, social, and other activities of our society;
(3) the present funding system violates the Education Clause and the students' rights;
(4) the Equal Protection Clause requires Respondents to provide funding that does not discriminate based on income or taxable property;
(5) the present school funding system violates the Equal Protection Clause by providing students in school districts with high property values and incomes the opportunity to meet state standards and obtain an adequate education while denying students in districts with low property values and incomes those same opportunities;
(6) the funding disparities between the school districts is not justified by any compelling governmental interest and is not rationally related to any legitimate government objective; and
(7) Respondents are violating Petitioners' constitutional rights by implementing the school financing arrangement.

( Petition for Review at ¶ ¶ 312-319).

Additionally, Petitioners ask this Court to permanently compel Respondents to establish, fund and maintain a system providing equal opportunity to all students to obtain an education meeting academic standards and societal participation; to develop a school-funding arrangement that complies with the Education and Equal Protection Clauses and maintain continuing jurisdiction to ensure that they are met; to award costs, including attorneys' fees and expert fees; and to grant other relief as this Court deems just. (Petition for Review at ¶ ¶ 320-324).

II.

Executive Branch Respondents filed the instant preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer,[13] alleging: (1) Petitioners' claims present nonjusticiable political questions because the General Assembly has enacted statutes providing for the establishment, operation and funding of a system of public education as required by the Education Clause; (2) Petitioners fail to state a claim for which relief may be granted because the statutory scheme establishing and providing for the system of public education is rationally related to legitimate governmental objectives; (3) Petitioners' claims are barred by sovereign immunity to the extent that the petition for review seeks to impose a mandatory injunction; and (4) Petitioners' claims are barred by the separation of powers doctrine to the extent that the petition for review seeks to compel action by the General Assembly and subject it to ongoing supervision by this Court.

Likewise, Legislative Respondents filed preliminary objections in the nature of a demurrer, alleging: (1) Petitioners' claims present nonjusticiable political questions

Page 462

because there are no judicially manageable standards for granting relief; (2) Petitioners fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under the Education Clause because the existing funding system serves the rational basis of preserving local control over public education; and (3) Petitioners fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted under the Equal Protection Clause because education is not a fundamental right subject to strict scrutiny and the existing funding system serves the rational basis of preserving local control over public education.

III.

With respect to Respondents' first preliminary objection, courts apply the Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 82 S.Ct. 691, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962), analysis to determine whether judicial abstention under the political question doctrine applies. Robinson Township v. Commonwealth, 623 Pa. 564, 83 A.3d 901, 928 (Pa. 2013); Sweeney v. Tucker, 473 Pa. 493, 375 A.2d 698, 711 (Pa. 1977). As the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has explained:

Cases implicating the political question doctrine include those in which: there is a textually demonstrable constitutional commitment of the disputed issue to a coordinate political department; there is a lack of judicially discoverable and manageable standards for resolving the disputed issue; the issue cannot be decided without an initial policy determination of a kind clearly for non judicial discretion; a court cannot undertake independent resolution without expressing lack of the respect due coordinate branches of government; there is an unusual need for unquestioning adherence to a political decision already made; and there is potential for embarrassment from multifarious pronouncements by various departments on one question.

Robinson Township, 83 A.3d at 928 (citations omitted).

In Marrero I and II, the Philadelphia School District, students and parents in the district, the City of Philadelphia, and other organizations filed suit seeking declarations that the General Assembly had failed to fulfill its obligation under the Education Clause by failing to adequately fund the public school system in Philadelphia and that it must amend the School Code to ensure that the district provides adequately for the needs of its students because the local tax base did not provide sufficient revenues. This Court sustained the respondents' preliminary objections because the claims presented were nonjusticiable political questions in Marrero I and the Supreme Court affirmed in Marrero II.

Initially, the Supreme Court explained that " th[e] mandate of our state constitution ... does not confer an individual right upon each student to a particular level or quality of education, but, instead, imposes a constitutional duty upon the legislature to provide for the maintenance of a thorough and efficient system of public schools throughout the Commonwealth." Marrero II, 739 A.2d at 112 (quoting our opinion and citing Danson v. Casey, 484 Pa. 415, 399 A.2d 360 (Pa. 1979)).

The Court acknowledged that the Education Clause " 'makes it impossible for a legislature to set up an educational policy which future legislatures cannot change' because 'the very essence of this section is to enable successive legislatures to adopt a changing program to keep abreast of educational advances,'" and that it would also be " contrary" to the " essence" of the Education Clause " for this Court to bind future Legislatures and school boards to a present judicial view of a constitutionally required

Page 463

'normal' program of education services...." Id. (citations omitted).

The Court continued:

[T]he only judicially manageable standard this court could adopt would be the rigid rule that each pupil must receive the same dollar expenditures.... [H]owever, ... expenditures are not the exclusive yardstick of educational quality, or even constitutional quantity.... The educational product is dependent upon many factors, including the wisdom of the expenditures as well as the efficiency and economy with which available resources are utilized.
....
As long as the legislative scheme for financing public education " has a reasonable relation" to " [providing] for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public schools," the General Assembly has fulfilled its constitutional duty to the public school students of Philadelphia. The Legislature has enacted a financing scheme reasonably related to [the] maintenance and support of a system of public education in the Commonwealth[.] The framework is neutral with regard to the School District[] and provides it with its fair share of state subsidy funds. This statutory scheme does not " ' clearly, palpably, and plainly violate the Constitution'" ....
....
Whatever the source of the School District['s] endemic ability to obtain the funds the School District deems are necessary for it to offer its students a " normal program of educational services," appellants by this litigation seek to shift the burden of supplying those revenues from local sources to the Commonwealth. This Court, however, may not abrogate or intrude upon the lawfully enacted scheme by which public education is funded, not only in Philadelphia, but throughout the Commonwealth.

Id. at 112-13 (citations omitted and emphasis in original).

Contrary to Petitioners' assertions, the adoption of statewide academic standards and assessments and the costing-out study and subsequent appropriations since the Supreme Court's decision in Marrero II do not preclude its application in this case. While the foregoing may establish annual legislative or executive benchmarks regarding student achievement and educational spending that may be used in determining funding levels as a matter of policy, they do not confer funding discretion upon this Court nor provide us with judicially manageable standards for determining whether the General Assembly has discharged its duty under the Constitution.

As outlined above, the Court explained in Marrero II and Danson that the Constitution " does not confer an individual right upon each student to a particular level or quality of education," and " expenditures are not the exclusive yardstick of educational quality, or even constitutional quantity." Marrero II, 739 A.2d at 112-13 quoting Danson, 399 A.2d at 366. This Court can no more determine what level of annual funding would be sufficient for each student in each district in the statewide system to achieve the required proficiencies than the Supreme Court was able to determine what constitutes an " adequate" education or what level of funding would be " adequate" for each student in such a system in Marrero II or Danson. This is a legislative policy determination[14] that

Page 464

has been solely committed to the General Assembly under Article 3, Section 14.

Accordingly because Marrero II and Danson preclude our review of Petitioners' claims in this matter as nonjusticiable political questions and require the grant of Respondents' first preliminary objections,[15] the preliminary objections of the Executive Branch Respondents and the Legislative Branch Respondents are sustained and Petitioners' petition for review is dismissed.

Judge Cohn Jubelirer did not participate in the decision of this case.

ORDER

AND NOW, this 21st day of April, 2015, the preliminary objections of the Respondents are sustained and Petitioners' petition for review is dismissed.


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