HARRISBURG, PA (JULY 29, 2021) — A powerful early victory came for plaintiffs in the PA school funding case, as Commonwealth Court today largely rejected PA House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler’s attempt to block the introduction of evidence about the massive racial achievement gaps in Pennsylvania public schools and the severe underfunding that is driving those disparities.
This was one of two motions to limit evidence that were filed by legislative leaders and argued before the court on July 7 — the other being a motion from Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman that sought to block the introduction of any evidence at trial about events since the case was filed in 2014. Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, who presides over the case, has now largely denied both motions.
In his May 2021 motion, Speaker Cutler sought to preclude “any evidence or argument regarding the adverse impact that may occur on the basis of race as a result of the system of education funding.” The Court, in denying the motion in part and granting it in part, rejected the vast majority of Speaker Cutler’s request, precluding only approximately six pages of Petitioners’ expert testimony. The Court’s ruling states, “The Court denies the Motions in Limine filed by Speaker Cutler and Senator Corman to the extent they seek to preclude Petitioners from presenting evidence of the disproportionate impact on racial and/or ethnic minorities, such as spending or achievement gaps.”
The Court found persuasive decisions of other courts around the country, which held that how children of color are doing is relevant to a claim about whether a system is working for all students. Moreover, the Court agreed that “evidence about who lives in [Pennsylvania’s] low wealth school districts is relevant to Petitioners’ claims,” as is how those children are doing.
With those principles in mind, the Court rejected Speaker Cutler’s attempt to exclude the following evidence:
Racially disaggregated data, including evidence of the funding system’s disproportionate impact on children of color as evidenced through achievement and spending gaps. Petitioners intend to show that Pennsylvania’s achievement gaps are among the biggest in the nation, as are their disparities.
- Admissions from the Pennsylvania Department of Education that those gaps exist, and that fixing the funding gaps would help fix the achievement gaps.
- Evidence that Black and Latinx students are heavily concentrated in high-poverty schools.
- Evidence that those same students therefore are more likely to lack access to educational opportunity, including qualified educators, college-ready coursework, and positive school climate.
The Court found several reasons not to preclude Petitioners from presenting the challenged evidence, including the fact that the NAACP is a petitioner and that 84% of the School District of Lancaster’s student population is comprised of minorities.
“The existence of these longstanding racial inequities, and the General Assembly’s insistence on ignoring their effects, is relevant to establishing that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is irrational and unconstitutional.”
“Race is a sensitive subject and a highly charged issue. That alone does not warrant exclusion of all evidence of race, where, as here, Petitioners have shown such evidence is relevant to their claims. At this time, Speaker Cutler has not shown that the potential probative value of this evidence is outweighed by a danger of unfair prejudice.” The opinion goes on to say, “Because it is clear from the Petition that Petitioners allege that all students are entitled to adequate and equitable education in Pennsylvania, the Court finds that evidence that minority students, as a subgroup, are allegedly not receiving an adequate and equitable education may be relevant to Petitioners’ claims.”
President Kenneth L. Huston stated in his response to the Judge’s decision, “The NAACP Pennsylvania State Conference is pleased that the Court recognized what we thought was obvious to the General Assembly: that the NAACP will not rest until every child, of every race and ethnicity is able to access the education they deserve. Pennsylvania’s educational system as it currently exists must be transformed into one that provides equal opportunity for all.”
“We are grateful that the Commonwealth Court agreed with us today,” says Claudia De Palma, who argued the case on behalf of Petitioners. “Students of color are concentrated in low-wealth school districts across the Commonwealth, and suffer significant educational opportunity gaps that lead to massive achievement gaps as a result. Although this case is not a race discrimination case, this data is plainly relevant to determining whether or not our school funding system meets the needs of all children in Pennsylvania, as our state constitution requires.”
De Palma continued: “The existence of these longstanding racial inequities, and the General Assembly’s insistence on ignoring their effects, is relevant to establishing that Pennsylvania’s school funding system is irrational and unconstitutional.”
The funding case goes to trial in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg beginning September 9.