As Pa. school funding trial resumes, here’s a cheat sheet on what’s happened so far

Tara Matise teaches her prekindergarten students virtually in her classroom

Tara Matise teaches her prekindergarten students virtually in her classroom prepared ahead of planned in-person learning at Nebinger Elementary School in Philadelphia, Friday, March 19, 2021. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

After a week-long break for Thanksgiving, a group of plaintiff school districts and parents return to Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Court on Tuesday to argue state lawmakers are failing in their constitutional mandate to provide students a “thorough and efficient system” of public education.

They say the state’s current model for funding schools is inadequate and inequitable, leading to a system of “haves and have nots.” If their case is successful, it could dramatically reshape how Pennsylvania funds education.

As the second week of witness testimony kicks off, with witnesses from the Greater Johnstown School District expected to take the stand, here’s a recap of what’s happened so far:

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A ‘broke,’ rural district takes the stand

Over several days of testimony, leaders from Panther Valley described a cash-strapped, struggling school district with large class sizes, high teacher turnover, outdated textbooks, and one toilet for 75 kindergarteners.

The small, rural district, which spans Carbon and Schuylkill Counties, is one of six plaintiff school districts in the case.

Superintendent David McAndrew said he is forced to make decisions he knows are not in the best interest of children, like letting positions go unfilled after teachers retire and almost cutting the district’s arts and sports programs. (He was able to avoid that for now, thanks to federal pandemic relief funds, but worries what will happen when the money runs out.)

Fifth grade teacher Tara Yuricheck described paying out of pocket for basic supplies like pencils and glue sticks, along with extra lessons to help bring her history class into the 21st century. She uses a textbook that was printed in 1997 because the district can’t afford an update. Some copies are in bad physical shape, and there aren’t enough textbooks to go around.

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Yuricheck said she can’t always get to every student, because classes are so large. She often loses her daily prep period to fill in when other teachers are out because there aren’t enough substitutes.

Panther Valley, a former coal mining community, has the 10th highest tax rate in Pennsylvania. But McAndrew and Yuricheck said the district still can’t raise enough to give children the education they deserve. The effects show up in below-average test scores.

They’re asking the state for help, because “we can’t keep going to the poorest people and asking for more money,” McAndrew said.

Yuricheck, whose two children attend Panther Valley schools, said her own parents lost their home when they could no longer afford the high property taxes.

An attorney for Republican legislative leaders pushed back on the image of a severely underfunded district that can’t provide a decent education. He pointed to a wide range of course offerings, from AP Chemistry to Apocalyptic and Dystopian Literature, as well as the district’s new full-day kindergarten class and state-funded pre-K program, and noted that the district managed to repave a parking lot.

He also downplayed the value of standardized test scores in measuring student success, pointing to previous statements from Panther Valley officials that these scores don’t fully reflect students’ talents or capabilities.

McAndrew noted that he had not made those statements, and said he found test scores meaningful, arguing they would be higher with better resources.

What the framers meant by ‘thorough and efficient’

After witness testimony from inside schools, the plaintiffs called up Derek Black, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

He explained the origin of the education clause in the state constitution, and described the constitutional delegates’ frame of mind as they established that clause in the 1870s.

Black said the delegates wanted to ensure that Pennsylvania’s citizens were engaged, intelligent voters — the key to a functional government — and believed the best way to accomplish this was through a high quality school system for all students.

Through the new education clause, delegates were “extinguishing” the previous, pauper school system and “transforming it into a new system that served all children in the state,” Black said. “They thought that was really important, that if you kept kids in different schools or in different classifications of schools, when it came down to it inevitably the poor kids would get an inferior education.”

The framers also wanted to avoid “oppressive” taxation on some communities to fund schools, and stated that the commonwealth should spend $1 million on education.

In 2019-20, public schools in Pennsylvania received more than $36 billion, totalling all sources of revenue. State government provided $12.3 billion of that.

During cross-examination, a defense attorney pointed out that the framers also considered including the word “uniform” in the education clause, but ultimately left it out.

This shows that they believed in the importance of local school control, he argued, and were concerned about placing limits on schools.

“Did you understand that at least some delegates were concerned that entering the word ‘uniform’ into the constitution would prevent schools that could afford to offer certain resources from doing so because other schools could not afford it?” the lawyer, Patrick Northen, asked.

Black acknowledged that concern, and said the framers ultimately rejected the word uniform out of fear that it could be interpreted too rigidly — to mean, for example, that all schools have to use the same textbooks, or that “if they had co-ed education in Philadelphia, that it would then be problematic if Pittsburgh was doing single-sex education and you’d have to close one of those two down.”

‘Districts are underfunded across the board’

Penn State education professor Matthew Kelly closed out the week of testimony, explaining how the state’s heavy reliance on local taxes to fund schools has led to some of the widest spending gaps between poor and wealthy districts in the country.

Pennsylvania ranks 45th nationwide in the share of education funding that comes from state coffers. That leaves local school districts to raise a substantial chunk of money on their own; poorer districts, with less taxable wealth, come out behind, Kelly said.

He argued that spending gaps disproportionately affect students of color, noting that the poorest 20% of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts serve half the state’s Black children and 40% of its Latino students.

According to Kelly’s calculations, the state’s poorest districts have about $4,800 less funding per student, on average, than the wealthiest districts. Students in these districts under-perform on state assessments, Kelly said, and economically disadvantaged students who attend wealthier districts perform better academically than their peers in low-wealth districts.

Still, it’s not just the poorest school communities that are harmed by the current funding system. More than 80% of the state’s districts are underfunded by a total of $4.6 billion, Kelly said. That’s based on a 2007 state-commissioned study estimating how much money it would take for all students to meet state academic standards.

“In the commonwealth, districts are underfunded across the board,” Kelly said.

Defense attorney Northen challenged that idea, pointing out that Pennsylvania ranks near the top nationwide in the amount of money it spends per student. Plaintiffs have argued that average hides the state’s wide spending gaps.

Northen also pushed back on the value of standardized test scores, circling back to some of the same questions Panther Valley’s superintendent faced, and argued that money is not the sole determinant of how students perform on state assessments.

“There may be factors other than funding that can cause or contribute to an achievement gap, including the level of poverty in a district, correct?” he asked.

He also noted that some of the state’s school districts are considered low-spending but high-achieving, while others spend a lot but “still have low achievement.”

Kelly acknowledged his point, but said it was more important to focus on the larger statewide pattern than a few select districts.

The school funding trial is expected to last another six to eight weeks, and the losing side will most likely appeal the case to the Pa. Supreme Court.

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