A Note for Funders Following Court’s Fair Funding Decision


A Note for Funders Following Court’s Fair Funding Decision

Sixty years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. wrote “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” The power of philanthropy lies not just in its capacity to give, but in its potential to ignite transformation. Often, as funders, we support exceptional programs with dedicated staff and demonstrable outcomes. Yet the systems in which these programs operate are often broken or extremely under-resourced, frequently making programs impermanent or even ineffective.

In 2014, the William Penn Foundation, with the wise and courageous support of our Board of Directors, made an investment to push for resources to address issues of inequity and inadequacy in our education system. That year, the Foundation began long-term support for a litigation effort aimed at addressing school funding disparities in Pennsylvania. In sharing this example, we extend a call to fellow funders to consider funding public interest litigation as part of an effort to address the injustice to which Dr. King referred.

Supporting litigation efforts as part of philanthropy can be a profound way to drive improvement in critical areas of society. When foundations extend their support beyond traditional grantmaking to embrace the power of public interest legal action, they can unlock new possibilities and outcomes. By investing in litigation that aligns to mission and values, foundations can amplify their influence, catalyze systemic shifts, and create lasting societal impact.

In practice, funders' support for litigation efforts involves careful consideration and alignment with goals. This must include input from legal experts, advocacy organizations, and community stakeholders who are deeply engaged in the issues at hand. But it is not so complicated that it cannot be done.

For the William Penn Foundation, our backing of school funding litigation grows out of our long-term commitment to expanding access to high quality educational opportunities and to advancing policies that make that possible. Supporting litigation was a natural evolution of that work. It does not require a specific litigation grantmaking program or a large and complex strategy shift. It does require a commitment to changing unjust systems.

Pennsylvania’s educational landscape is marked by glaring funding disparities among school districts. While some districts enjoy ample resources and access to high-quality education, others struggle with limited funding, outdated facilities, and inadequate resources. Consider a comparison of two districts: New Hope-Solebury and Reading School District. According to recent data, New Hope-Solebury spends $29,388 per student while Reading spends $14,451 per student. This is a difference of $14,937 per student. That becomes even more glaring when considered over a classroom of 25 students: $373,425 per class. Consider what a classroom–composed mostly of children living in low-income families–could do with an additional $375,000 every year. The additional instructional staff and enrichment activities would change the trajectories of students’ lives.

Multiple measures show that these funding levels matter–performance on state exams, college attendance, and graduation are all much lower for students from low-spending districts. And studies have shown that Pennsylvania has larger gaps in student outcomes by race and economic background than almost any other state. An analysis from Research for Action’s Educational Opportunity Dashboard found that, “no other state in the nation provides such high access to educational opportunity to its White students and students from higher-income families while providing such low access to educational opportunity for its Black and Hispanic students, and students from low-income families.” 

This past February, after nearly a decade of litigation, the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania ruled that the state’s school funding system is unconstitutional. The historic decision is the result of a lawsuit brought by six Pennsylvania school districts, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, the NAACP-PA State Conference, and a group of public school parents, represented by the Education Law Center (ELC) and Public Interest Law Center (PILC), both longtime Foundation grantees.

As seen on this timeline, the case moved through a series of filings, proceedings, and appeals before the decisive ruling and took nine years to be resolved. Litigation is not quick, but it is powerful.

In its February decision, the Court ordered state lawmakers and education officials to begin working on a new system that ensures all children can receive a public education that prepares them for today’s world. This decision opens a new door for advocates, voters, and others to elevate the issue of inequitable school funding and demand a solution.

When the Foundation began supporting this litigation effort, it was possible that the litigation would have been unsuccessful. Since 1970, at least 59 cases in 31 states have failed to overturn school funding laws. We considered this possibility and decided that not supporting this effort and continuing under the current broken system would not serve Pennsylvania’s students. Ignoring this situation would make us complicit in an example of “economic injustice” that King challenged philanthropy to address. The risks involved in sticking with litigation support over an extended period proved to be worth the investment.

Essential to this effort and separate from the litigation, a campaign called “PA Schools Work” informed the public about the inequities and inadequacies of our school funding system, including sharing information about the court case and its implications. By communicating the urgency of the school funding crisis over a decade–through community meetings, legislative visits, opinion pieces in the press, infographics, social media content, and more “PA Schools Work” helped to build and continues to build the momentum needed to take the next steps required by the Commonwealth Court ruling.

As court cases can often draw media attention and spark public discourse, foundations that support litigation and advocacy in combination can bring increased attention to important causes and can help galvanize individuals and communities to act. By working alongside awareness and mobilization campaigns, legal efforts can garner support beyond the duration of a single case and can foster unity, shared purpose, and a collective drive for change.

And you don’t have to be a big funder to support public interest litigation and related advocacy efforts. There are many ways to help advance this essential work. Funders can support policy research and analysis projects, data collection and expert testimony, convening, planning, and networking - all of which are needed to mount strong and compelling cases and to demonstrate the urgency of these issues in the minds of our legislators and residents.

For our Foundation, this courtroom victory confirmed our commitment to identifying and changing key policies that preclude access to opportunity for young children. We encourage other funders to join us in the fight for greater equity, to embrace the long-term perspective needed for this work, and to envision the potential for transformative change. By harnessing the power of the legal system to advocate for justice, equity, and positive change, we can move beyond funding good programs for a small proportion of children and toward creating opportunity for all.


To learn more about the school funding lawsuit in Pennsylvania and similar efforts across the country, listen to WHYY’s Schooled podcast which “gives the insider’s story of America’s public schools, through the eyes of the students, parents, and educators.”

If you’d like to discuss how your foundation can support public interest litigation, please contact Elliot Weinbaum, Chief Philanthropy Officer at the William Penn Foundation.

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