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PA’s Fair Funding Champion

Deborah Gordon Klehr oversaw the Education Law Center’s successful case mandating better funding of public schools throughout the state. But it’s her work outside the courtroom that has been indispensable for Pennsylvania students

PA’s Fair Funding Champion

Deborah Gordon Klehr oversaw the Education Law Center’s successful case mandating better funding of public schools throughout the state. But it’s her work outside the courtroom that has been indispensable for Pennsylvania students

Whether it’s asbestos in classrooms, teacher shortages, or high dropout rates, the headlines haven’t been kind to Philadelphia public schools since the pandemic. But then again, they weren’t kind beforehand either, especially when it came to news of policymakers’ repeated failures to find solutions for improving the education system. (We’re looking at you, School Reform Commission.)

That’s why, in 2014, when the Education Law Center, a legal advocacy nonprofit, filed a lawsuit against the Pennsylvania Department of Education, many public school advocates had low expectations. After all, ELC lawyers were making the same argument that had been made for years by other advocates, with little success. Namely, that Pennsylvania schools are woefully underfunded, and that the state’s mechanism for distributing those funds is unfair to less affluent districts, leading to one of the worst funding gaps in the country between its wealthiest districts and poorest ones.

It took nine years for the case to wind its way through the court system. In February 2023 — following a trial, a pandemic and a couple of gubernatorial changeovers — Commonwealth Court President Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer sided in favor of the plaintiffs. The judge declared Pennsylvania’s school funding system violated both the equal protection and education clauses of the state constitution — and tasked the legislature with fixing it.

After a decade of pursuing the case, the ELC — along with the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP, who together brought the case — had managed to do what generations of advocates before them could not: Show that school funding problems are not exclusive to large urban districts or chiefly the result of mismanagement. “School funding doesn’t have to be political,” says ELC Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr. “If the roof is falling in on your math class or there’s no reading specialist in your school, everyone should want that for students.”

PA ranks dead last in the country in the percentage of education funding that comes from state contributions versus property taxes at the local level. Because of that, PA schools are more reliant on local property taxes than just about any other state.

With their historic victory in the case, it might have been easy for Klehr and ELC to take a back seat while things played out in the legislature. Instead, over the last 18 months, Klehr and ELC have been involved in a project almost as difficult as winning a decade-long lawsuit: Building a coalition to push the PA General Assembly to live up to the judge’s ruling.

“The lawsuit is important, but building a movement around this type of adequate, equitable funding for all kids is even bigger,” says Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters PA, a nonprofit based in Central Pennsylvania. “I really think that makes the lawmakers in Harrisburg very uncomfortable, because they’re not used to seeing everybody working together.”

Intersectional before intersectionality was cool

When I first met with Klehr in February, she showed me a copy of the school funding decision that’s taped to her office door. “It’s kind of like reading a great book, when you don’t want to skip to the last page, but you have to find out what happened,” Klehr says about the moment she found out about the ruling.

That moment was a long time coming for Klehr, 46, who has spent her entire career in and around education. She taught as an elementary school teacher in Hoboken, NJ, before shifting her sights to legal advocacy. After graduating from Harvard Law School, she was clerking for a federal judge in New York when her then-boyfriend (and now-husband) got accepted into Wharton’s MBA program. Klehr, who grew up in Haverford and Bryn Mawr, had intentions of making it a brief homecoming. But in 2005, she began working at ELC through a public-interest fellowship, and never left. “I loved the combination of direct service, impact litigation and policy advocacy,” she says.

Established in 1975, ELC is a statewide nonprofit that provides legal advocacy for students, parents and districts. In the same year ELC was founded, U.S. Congress passed the landmark legislation known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which enshrined the rights of students with disabilities for the first time on a federal level. In the nearly 50 years since, ELC has focused on improving outcomes for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, including students with disabilities.

“Listen, I don’t think we used the term intersectional in 1975,” Klehr says. “But the concept of who we are working on behalf of hasn’t changed … students of color, students in poverty, students with disabilities, multilingual learners, students in the foster care and juvenile justice systems, LGBTQ students, students experiencing homelessness, and students at the intersection of those identities — who, through no fault of their own, face barriers to accessing quality public schools.”

At first, Klehr was focused on projects and cases tied to dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline. She traveled across PA to train juvenile probation officers on the educational rights of students. She also represented individual students, typically students of color, who received overzealous discipline. Recalling one incident, Klehr described a middle schooler who was going to be transferred to a disciplinary school after the Philadelphia School District said he flashed a weapon in school. That weapon was a pencil sharpener, which he’d found during a kickball game and gave to a teacher.

“Students were being expelled for the most ridiculous reasons,” Klehr says. Through the ELC helpline, more and more examples of heavy-handed discipline came to Klehr’s attention, which led to a statewide advocacy campaign. In 2016, ELC got the school districts of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh to ban suspensions for kindergarteners (except in cases of bodily harm) — and has since worked to extend those bans to elementary schoolers.

“School funding doesn’t have to be political. If the roof is falling in on your math class or there’s no reading specialist in your school, everyone should want that for students.” ELC Executive Director Deborah Gordon Klehr.

After a decade working as a staff attorney, Klehr was named ELC executive director in 2015, a few months after the fair-funding lawsuit was filed (and following a brief stint as interim head). She has been instrumental in growing the staff and nearly doubling the budget of the organization since taking the helm. But her leadership is noticed beyond the educational sphere.

Within months of her appointment, three more women would come to lead prominent public-interest law organizations in the city: Keir Bradford-Grey at the (public) Defender Association of Philadelphia; Susan Mangold at the Juvenile Law Center; and Debby Freedman at Community Legal Services. Shortly thereafter, the four women began a still-running breakfast club where they’ve been able to share best practices and support each other’s work over the course of a decade. They’ve inspired more women to climb the ladder of public-interest legal organizations.

“I’ve definitely seen a really significant and noticeable change … many more women in leadership roles, as executive directors, but also as deputy directors and managing attorneys,” says Freedman, Community Legal Services’ executive director. “These are women who really wanted to be leaders in this world and who’ve blazed a trail for other women.”

Today, the cornerstone of ELC’s work is the legal aid it provides to students and school districts statewide, but it’s also engaged with issues on a grassroots level. ELC has been training parents on how to fight book bans, putting out fact sheets on the rights to disability resources, and testifying before policymakers on emergent policy. “If you had asked me when I started … what I’d be working on in 2024, book bans would not have been on my bingo card,” Klehr says. “The whole concept of public schools has been under attack. But so has democracy.”

The nonprofit’s legal work ranges from direct representation to impact litigation that aims to generate reform. Last year, ELC filed a complaint on behalf of youth who are detained at Allegheny County Jail and are being denied a public education while incarcerated. Another case involved a student who was denied enrollment at Franklin Towne Charter School after administrators discovered she had a learning disability.

And then there’s the ongoing fight over the state funding. “We want to work with the legislature and executive branch on a remedy. And if they don’t do it, we are going back to court,” Klehr says.

Fighting for a ‘fundamental right’

One factor underlying much of ELC’s casework over the years has been a lack of school funding. For decades, public school advocates had criticized the two-fold issue of how PA funds education: not just the overall amount of dollars provided by Harrisburg, but also the way those dollars were dispersed statewide.

Between 1970 and 2000, three separate lawsuits were brought against the Commonwealth to challenge the constitutionality of that system, but each time the courts ruled that the legislature, and not the judiciary, was responsible for assessing its validity. In essence, the courts left it up to elected officials to determine if the state met its obligation to students outlined in the state constitution to provide “a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially, and civically.”

In compiling their own challenge, Klehr and colleagues made a series of shrewd maneuvers to not only increase the likelihood of winning in the courts but to get the attention of legislators across the state. For one thing, they carefully selected the plaintiffs — four parents, two statewide civil rights groups, and six school districts — from different parts of PA, to avoid the perception that the lawsuit was primarily about the Philadelphia School District. “This isn’t a state that’s always all that friendly towards Philadelphia,” Klehr says. “I think it’s been important to show that this is a problem that’s rural, urban, and suburban — all across the Commonwealth.”

The benefits of that strategy became clear during the case’s months-long trial when the team of lawyers offered testimony from a superintendent in northeast Pennsylvania’s Carbon County who told the story of the 75 kindergarteners in his district who had to share a single toilet. Another rural educator testified that 1,200 elementary schoolers had fallen behind because they lacked access to pre-K.

At a time when public education has been a target of the culture wars, the ELC suit has provided a rallying cry for advocates across Pennsylvania.

PA ranks dead last in the country in the percentage of education funding that comes from state contributions versus property taxes at the local level. Because of that, PA schools are more reliant on local property taxes than just about any other state.

In ruling for the plaintiffs, the judge ushered in a new era for educational rights throughout the state. “The Court is in uncharted territory with this landmark case,” Judge Cohn Jubelirer wrote. “No compelling government purpose has been espoused for the disparities identified between low-wealth and high-wealth school districts … there is no rational basis for such disparities.”

Going one step further, the judge declared that education is a “fundamental right” in PA — a distinction that, in the eyes of the court, creates a higher standard for the executive and legislative branches to fulfill for students. “The only requirement, that imposed by the Constitution, is that every student receives a meaningful opportunity to succeed academically, socially and civically, which requires that all students have access to a comprehensive, effective, and contemporary system of public education,” wrote the judge.

Lawyering outside the courtroom

Even with the court victory, Klehr knew that upending PA’s current funding system in court was only the first part of establishing a more equitable system, and since the decision came through, the ELC has been an aggressive player in the next phase. One of the biggest outcomes of their advocacy has been zeroing in on a precise number for measuring just how woeful the state’s contribution to education has been. In September 2023, they began to highlight the findings of a scholarly report that said it would take an additional $6.2 billion in education funding to achieve constitutional compliance, before pushing that number in the press and in conversations with lawmakers.

That report has been influential in shaping the debate around school funding now taking place in Harrisburg. “Deborah and ELC have been indispensable,” says Senator Vincent Hughes, the Democratic chair on the senate appropriations committee. “Completely reliable. Tenacious. Persistent.”

Last week, the Democrat-controlled House passed a bill that would simultaneously increase education funding by $5.1 billion over seven years, while directing more money to the most under-resourced areas. Senate Republicans are threatening to delay passage of the state budget unless Democrats agree to concessions in the school funding bill, such as private school vouchers.

For Klehr, the political tug-of-war has meant a lot of trips to and from the state capital throughout the spring — to meet with lawmakers, attend rallies in the rotunda, and offer testimony. “Some day, in my spare time, I’m gonna teach a law school class called ‘lawyering outside the courtroom,’” she says.

At a time when public education has been a target of the culture wars, the ELC suit has provided a rallying cry for advocates across Pennsylvania. “Getting people to understand that this isn’t about pitting school districts against each other, but instead about having all of us look at Harrisburg as the problem — that has been the gift of the lawsuit,” says advocate Susan Spicka. “Deborah has very little ego and is somebody who brings everyone together under the biggest tent.”

When I spoke to state senator Vincent Hughes in May — 70 years to the day of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision — he drew a direct line between the work of Klehr and ELC, and civil rights lawyers of yesteryear. “It is relevant that we’re having this conversation today,” says Hughes, who has called the fair funding issue the most important civil rights issue of today. “We need the Thurgood Marshalls and the NAACP Legal Defense Funds. And in this case, [that’s] Deborah and the Education Law Center.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this story neglected to mention ELP’s co-counsels on this case. They were Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny & Myers LLP.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the trial portion of the lawsuit was conducted entirely over Zoom. It was not.


Deborah Klehr, center, at podium, in Harrisburg.

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