City Councilwoman-at-large Helen Gym and fellow education advocates held a rally Monday at City Hall to celebrate a milestone victory in the fight for equitable education funding in Philadelphia.
The rally was held on the south side of the building in front of the recently unveiled sculpture of Octavius Catto, an African American educator and civil rights activist in the mid-1800s, to honor the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s ruling in the case brought by several school districts and parents. The state’s highest court ordered the Commonwealth Court to hold a trial to decide whether the state is providing inadequate and inequitable school funding to its school districts in violation of the constitution.
Gym was joined by Michael Churchill, an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center; Maura McInerney, legal director at the Education Law Center; the Rev. Gregory Holston, executive director of POWER Interfaith; and Julien Terrell, executive director of Philadelphia Student Union as they addressed a crowd of about 50 people.
The Public Interest Law Center and the Education Law Center, along with a private New York law firm, are representing the plaintiffs.
“Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, after a significant political wind had changed, made clear that PA kids deserve better in the state of Pennsylvania,” Gym said.
Although no date has been set for the trial, McInerney said, “We look forward to presenting extensive evidence at trial."
The evidence, she said, "will prove that this state has provided inadequate resources to our students. They have failed in their duty to provide those basic resources, and our inequity in education shall not and will not be tolerated.”
Also, in a statement, McInerney noted that the rally was held on the anniversary of the swearing-in of Thurgood Marshall as the first African American U.S. Supreme Court justice and “our country’s greatest champion of equity in education.” Before being named to the nation's highest court, Marshall was the lead attorney in the Brown v. Board of Education case that led to the end of de jure school segregation.
In ordering a trial on the merits of the case, the seven justices reversed a 2015 Commonwealth Court ruling that “the mandate of the state constitution does not confer an individual right upon each student to a particular level or quality of education. Instead, it imposes upon the legislature a constitutional duty upon the legislature to provide for the maintenance of a thorough and efficient system of public schools.”
The plaintiffs appealed, and they presented their oral arguments before the Supreme Court in September 2016.
“It took a little while with small victories along the process, but we had the right people on our side,” said Rafi Cave, vice president of the school board of the William Penn School District, the lead plaintiff in the case.
The rally lasted about an hour. After the initial group of guest speakers, those in the crowd were invited to the microphone to read excerpts from the Supreme Court’s ruling, before Gym closed out the event. The crowd of community members, students, and advocates left in high spirits, as the musical duo McFadden and Whitehead’s song “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now” played.
Doryann Burry, a senior at Lankenau High School, said, “Just to know that some schools are so underfunded and just don’t get enough opportunities like music and art class ... This means a lot to me that they are actually fighting for something. They’re actually fighting to get these things.”