'It's time to keep that promise:' Closing arguments in the PA school funding trial
The superintendents of six petitioner school districts. From left to right: Brian Costello, Wilkes-Barre Area SD; Brian Waite, Shenandoah Valley SD; Eric Becoats, William Penn SD; Damaris Rau, SD of Lancaster; Amy Arcurio, Greater Johnstown SD; David McAndrew, Panther Valley SD. 

“Let me say it again, because it’s the whole case," Attorney Katrina Robson of O'Melveny, representing school districts, parents, and organizations, said early in her March 10 closing argument in the Pennsylvania school funding case. "Low-wealth districts do not have the resources that they need to prepare all children for college, career and civic success.”

In her closing argument, Robson cited dozens of examples from testimony of the ways that inadequate state funding harms students in low-wealth districts across Pennsylvania. In Johnstown, 1,200 elementary students, most of whom need help to catch up on reading and math, are served by just two reading specialists. In Wilkes-Barre, crumbling facilities make students feel, as one recent graduate said, "like they don't matter." In the William Penn School District, kindergarten teachers, working with 30 students at a time as the only adult in the room, are only able to provide individualized help for a few minutes a week.

And she discussed counter-arguments defending the current school funding system that she said "make a mockery" of the education clause of Pennsylvania's state constitution--meant to ensure, as Robson put it near the close of her argument, "one system, for one people," not a two-tiered system of public education, divided between the haves and have-nots.

Legislative respondents have suggested that disparities in educational resources and outcomes are acceptable because the Commonwealth needs people to, using their words, flip pizza crusts or work at McDonald’s,” she said, pointing to respondents’ comments suggesting that many Pennsylvania students have no use for algebra or biology.

"The catastrophic failures of this system are not because children look at course guides and aren't smart enough or industrious enough to seize opportunities," Robson said. "The failures are because they were denied those opportunities to begin with, from the very moment they had their needs triaged as if they were walking into a field hospital instead of kindergarten. It was the system's failure, not theirs.” 

You can catch up on closing arguments on Fund Our Schools PA, or in coverage from the Philadelphia Inquirer and other outlets. Attorneys for petitioners spoke to the press following closing arguments, joined by superintendents from petitioner school districts and leaders of petitioner organizations.

"We are from every corner of the Commonwealth," Supt. Amy Arcurio of Greater Johnstown School District said following closing arguments. "And we all believe in our students. We are here to ask the state of Pennsylvania to fund our schools like they believe in our students, too."
A big step against prison gerrymandering: Our statement on PA's legislative districts
For decades, prison gerrymandering has warped representation in Harrisburg by giving an unfair population boost to districts where state prisons are located. These districts are predominantly rural and white, while Pennsylvania prisoners are disproportionately Black, Latino, and from urban communities.

In August 2021, the Legislative Reapportionment Commission (LRC) voted to count most prisoners at their home addresses when drawing state house and senate district lines, a reform we had promoted for years. Pennsylvania House Majority Leader Kerry Benninghoff then filed a lawsuit against the LRC’s state legislative redistricting plan. On March 11 2022, we filed an amicus brief with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court representing formerly incarcerated Pennsylvania voters and the NAACP -- Pennsylvania State Conference supporting the LRC, joined by co-counsel from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Cynthia Alvarado, a lifelong Philadelphian, is one of the voters we represented in our brief. She was incarcerated in Lycoming County’s SCI Muncy for 12 years. As a young person from a deeply impoverished section of Philadelphia, she had felt politically disempowered for most of her life. During her time in prison, she had a political awakening, and she is now excited to vote for the first time in 2022. Alvarado is concerned that prison gerrymandering—by counting prisoners as residents of communities to which they typically have no ties—discourages civic involvement.

On March 16, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the LRC’s decision to curtail prison gerrymandering. "Today, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has upheld fair district lines that take major steps toward giving all communities the voice they deserve in Harrisburg," our staff attorney Ben Geffen said in our statement following the decision. This work is supported as part of the Jeffrey Golan & Frances Vilella-Vélez Voting Justice Project.
Law Center in the News: Students reflect on the PA school funding trial
What has it been like for students in underfunded school districts in Pennsylvania to hear public school funding discussed and debated for the last few months? WHYY sat down with two recent graduates of William Penn School District, one of six districts suing the state, to find out.

“The odds are always against us no matter what, but that’s what kind of keeps us going, being the underdogs and exceeding every challenge we get,” Victoria Monroe said. “But there should be no underdogs in the education system.”

For more highlights of press coverage from the start of the PA school funding trial, visit FundOurSchoolsPA.org/press.
Defending guardrails for fair elections: Taking on the independent legislature theory
The “independent state legislature” theory is an insidious legal idea contending that the General Assembly alone has nearly unfettered power to determine how congressional elections should be conducted and how district lines should be drawn, without being subject to the review of state courts interpreting state constitutions, or checks and balances from the executive branch of state government. Decades of legal precedent, including several U.S. Supreme Court cases, have flatly rejected this narrow interpretation of the U.S. Constitution, holding that the entire lawmaking process in states—not just the General Assembly—has a role to play in determining election law.

We saw this argument play out in a recent Pennsylvania court case to determine our state's new congressional districts, after the legislature and the governor reached an impasse. During oral argument before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court on February 18, our staff attorney Ben Geffen, advocating for our clients who submitted a proposed congressional district map as part of an amicus brief, argued against this legal theory. Other parties in the case, including those representing Republican state legislators in the majority, argued that the House Government Committee’s proposed congressional map should be given automatic deference because of the independent state legislature theory.

Our argument won the day, with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court exercising its independent oversight under the state constitution and agreeing with us in a March 9 opinion, affirming that the Governor and the state judiciary--interpreting Pennsylvania's state constitution--have vital roles to play in redistricting, not just the General Assembly.

In addition to our advocacy in the courtroom, we have helped explain this legal theory, and the effects it could have on election law, in reports from the Ohio Capital Journal and Michigan Advance.

“It’s very possible that within the next year the U.S. Supreme Court may hear one of these cases,” Geffen told a reporter from the Ohio Capital Journal. “It’s troubling to me that there appears to be an appetite among some members of the U.S. Supreme Court in reopening settled precedent.”
April 1: A Look Inside the PA School Funding Trial
Tomorrow, join us and our co-counsel from Education Law Center-PA Friday, April 1, at 12 p.m. for a free webinar taking a look inside the courtroom during Pennsylvania's historic school funding trial. Hosted by PA Schools Work, this program explores how we got to a status quo of unacceptable inequality, what we learned at trial, and what comes next.
Introducing Elizabeth Griffith, our new foundation relations manager!
We're so excited to welcome Elizabeth Griffith to our staff as our new foundation relations manager! She will manage the Law Center's foundation funded grants.

Prior to joining the Law Center, Elizabeth worked as an attorney and in nonprofit administration. Most recently she worked as the Grants and Compliance Specialist at Legal Aid of Southeastern PA. Help us welcome Elizabeth by liking her post on LinkedIn!
Join us April 21 for Vacant Land 215!
Want to learn more about community gardening and farming on vacant land in Philadelphia? Join us for a free Vacant Land 215 training on Thursday, April 21 at 12 p.m., online via Zoom.

Our Garden Justice Legal Initiative and Soil Generation invite you to come discuss legal land access and preservation for gardens, farms, and other community-managed open spaces.

The program will feature presentations from the Garden Justice Legal Initiative, the Philadelphia Land Bank, and Neighborhood Gardens Trust. Following this presentation, participants will be able to ask questions of panelists.
We're hiring: We're looking for a part-time community organizer
The Public Interest Law Center is seeking a part-time community organizer through the end of 2022 to support the Law Center’s work in housing. This position may transition to become full time and permanent depending on available funding for fiscal year 2023.

In support of the Housing Team, the organizer will work alongside our tenant organizer and community lawyer to grow the membership of Renters United Philadelphia. Launched within the Public Interest Law Center in March of 2020, Renters United Philadelphia organizes and educates renters to fight for their rights to quality housing in the streets, in the courts, and in City Hall. Learn more about the position and apply here. Preference will be given to applicants who apply by April 5.