Hohenstein: Will Pennsylvania finally do right by our kids and taxpayers?

Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubilerer issued a decision affirming the Constitutional right of our children to “a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth.” She stated, “the Education Clause requires that every student be provided with a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education.” Those fancy words just mean that every kid deserves a good school. We do this because the whole state benefits when that happens. 

Judge Jubilerer decided that we have not been providing good schools to all our kids, particularly those in poorer areas – like Philadelphia. The key is that the obligation we have to fund education comes straight from the state Constitution. That means education funding must be at the front of the line, it is one of the most important responsibilities state government has. We in the General Assembly have not been taking that responsibility seriously enough, and we have created a system that gives kids in wealthier places the education the Constitution promises but leaves out poor kids in schools that lack the basics.

The decision focused on two things: inputs and results. Inputs are things like basic funding, staffing, courses and curriculum, and facilities. Results are things like standardized test results, high school graduation rates, post-secondary enrollment in college or other programs. As we look at the schools and children that the state has not invested in, we also see the same kids not having the kind of outcomes to give them a chance. In other words, when we don’t invest in a child’s future, they don’t get one, and the gaps in both inputs and results are happening in the same places.

The judge’s decision makes a direct connection between the lack of resources and the lack of results because “the consistency of these gaps over the variety of inputs and outputs leads to the inescapable conclusion that these students are not receiving a meaningful opportunity to succeed.”

In Philadelphia, and in my district specifically, we have seen what happens when we invest in kids. At Richmond School this fall, the new building will give kids science classes to spark curiosity and interest in lifelong learning, a cafeteria designed to provide healthy food and establish eating habits that will help our kids through their entire lives, and a gym for kids to learn the connection between physical health and learning. The new building sends the kids and staff the message that they matter – that they have value.

The problem is that these investments are few and far between. The School District of Philadelphia simply does not have the resources to give students buildings that are safe, clean, and sufficient to give them a “thorough and efficient system of education.” The money needed to build facilities that meet the basic Constitutional standard is simply not being provided by the state. We have a structure in place, called PlanCon 2.0, but we in the General Assembly have not put the funds into that program that are needed. In the upcoming session, I will be doing all I can to fully fund PlanCon 2.0 because I want us to meet our obligation to our kids and let them know that their future matters.

As a final point, the Constitutional requirement for education has the direct result of helping everyone in the state. When we have a stronger education system, we have children learning not just the “Three R’s,” but also the value of citizenship. They are better prepared for jobs and are ready to participate in the economy. In other words, we can create an education system that will “serve the needs of the Commonwealth” and reduce burdens on all taxpayers. Much has been said about the problem of connecting school funding to property taxes. If we make a statewide commitment to education, the result will be to provide tax relief. With the state shouldering its fair share of the funding for schools, cities and towns will not have to tax their homeowners and businesses as much.

In the end, I believe this decision gives us the structure we need to follow to fulfill our most basic obligation – teaching our children so that they can succeed. That result will benefit us all.