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Pa. officials spent $12.6M on private lawyers to fight challenge to state’s education funding

The legal battle, two state officials privately acknowledged, carries one of the highest price tags for outside lawyers in decades.

  • Angela Couloumbis/Spotlight PA
Desks are shown in a classroom.

 Tim Tai / Philadelphia Inquirer

Desks are shown in a classroom.

This story first appeared in The Investigator, a weekly newsletter by Spotlight PA featuring the best investigative and accountability journalism from across Pennsylvania.

A Pennsylvania court earlier this year found the state’s system for funding its public schools is inequitable and disproportionately harms poorer districts. It’s a landmark decision that is widely expected to cost billions of dollars to correct.

The legal battle could soon be over, but the years state officials have spent fighting the challenge have come with a high price tag.

The state legislature and the governor’s administration have spent upwards of $12.6 million to hire a bevy of private lawyers since 2019, records obtained through a Right-to-Know request show.

The money went to three private law firms, with legal bills starting to spike in late 2021. That is when a four-month-long trial in the case began in Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court, culminating in this year’s ruling.

The legal battle, two state officials privately acknowledged, carries one of the highest price tags for outside lawyers in decades.

The GOP-controlled state Senate, for instance, has spent $3.1 million on legal fees since the start of 2021. The money went to lawyers for K&L Gates, which charged the chamber $475 per hour for work by its attorneys and $280 per hour for services provided by its paralegals.

That is on top of another nearly $1.6 million the chamber paid K&L Gates lawyers in 2019 and 2020, according to a prior analysis by Spotlight PA and The Caucus.

GOP leaders in the state House have shelled out nearly $2.5 million since 2021 to Dilworth Paxson LLP. The firm charged $238.50 per hour for work by its associates and $595 per hour for work by its senior lawyers. The state House paid Dilworth Paxson an additional $1.5 million in 2019 and 2020.

The governor’s administration, too, has racked up millions in legal bills. It has paid out just over $4 million since 2021 to Blank Rome LLP, whose partners charged $495 per hour.

The school funding case is complex and has far-reaching repercussions.

Six school districts, together with a group of parents and two statewide organizations, sued the legislature and governor’s office nearly a decade ago. Commonwealth Court initially dismissed the case, but Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court reinstated it in 2017.

The school districts and other plaintiffs argued the state is failing to meet its constitutional obligation to provide fair and equitable funding to all public school children. GOP legislative leaders have taken the opposite position, arguing that the Pennsylvania Constitution sets a lower educational standard than the plaintiffs believe, and noting that the state has provided historic increases to public education funding over the years.

During the trial, former Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf took a more nuanced position, acknowledging shortcomings in the state’s funding formula, but also highlighting improvements to it over the last decade.

In February, Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer ruled in favor of the school districts. She did not prescribe a remedy, so it is now up to Democratic Gov. Josh Shapiro and the now-divided legislature to hammer out a plan to address it.

State officials can appeal the case to the state Supreme Court, though Shapiro does not plan to do so. While Shapiro said this spring that Republican leaders had signaled to him that they would not appeal, neither the state House nor the state Senate has officially ruled it out.

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