Teacher tearfully testifies about poor, outdated resources as Pa. funding trial continues

A key question in the case before Commonwealth Court is what, exactly, a “thorough and efficient” system of education entails.

File photo: In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Nesquehoning, Pa

File photo: In this Thursday, March 11, 2021 file photo, desks are arranged in a classroom at an elementary school in Pa. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum, File)

When Tara Yuricheck taught first grade at Panther Valley Elementary School, she could look up through a hole in the classroom ceiling and “literally see the sky.”

Now, as a fifth grade social studies teacher in the district, she uses a textbook from 1997. According to its pages, Bill Clinton is the current U.S. president.

Some of the copies are in pretty bad shape, and there aren’t enough textbooks for every student. Yurichek pays out of pocket for extra, more up-to-date lessons.

“We don’t have the funds to update the textbook,” she said. “It’s like a triage in our district with money.”

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Yuricheck took the stand Wednesday as the second witness in a landmark lawsuit over Pennsylvania’s system for funding public education. Panther Valley is one of six school districts suing state leaders, arguing Pa. is failing to provide the “thorough and efficient system of public education” its constitution requires.

A key question in the case before Commonwealth Court is what, exactly, a “thorough and efficient” system of education entails. Lawyers for the plaintiffs and defendants offered competing definitions in their opening statements last week.

The plaintiffs argue that the state is dramatically underfunding public education, and creating substantial disparities among districts by relying heavily on local taxes to fund schools. The funding gaps are so bad, they say, the state violates that clause of its constitution.

Meanwhile, attorneys for GOP lawmakers argue that even if the system isn’t completely fair, and some schools have less than others, it’s not illegal. “Thorough and efficient” does not mean that every student has the exact same resources and opportunities, they say.

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After Yurichek’s testimony, the plaintiffs called to the stand Derek Black, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law.

He spoke about the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1872-1873, when delegates worked to establish the state constitution’s education clause.

The language they came up with, Black said, shifted from a “discretionary pauper school system to a mandatory system that serves all children.”

The delegates wanted to ensure that there isn’t a separate, inferior education system for poor students, he argued.

“If what you’re trying to do is ensure a thorough and efficient system of education, you can’t have one system of education for one set of kids, or one set of schools for one set of kids and another for others. So they believed it was important to bring all of those kids under one roof and serve them together in one system of thorough and efficient schools,” Black said.

The delegates were also concerned about some communities needing to tax themselves at higher rates to provide an education.

The term “thorough and efficient,” he said, “is mandating a floor below which no school can fall. That’s to say that the schools that are struggling or that have high tax burdens, they’re going to be lifted up to be on the plane of the other schools.”

During cross-examination, a lawyer representing GOP House Speaker Bryan Cutler brought up the fact that delegates considered but ultimately declined to include the word “uniform” in the education clause, arguing that at least some of them were concerned that “entering the word uniform into the constitution would prevent schools that can offer certain resources from doing so because other schools could not afford it.”

Tara Yuricheck, the fifth grade history teacher, said she wants to be able to do more for her Carbon County students.

She laid out her vision for an adequate system of education:

One where school districts like Panther Valley “have the funds they need to give these kids the education they deserve.”

One where children who struggle with trauma have social workers to support them.

And one where, “We have class sizes where the numbers aren’t 30 to a class. Our teachers get a break because we have enough that when someone is out we have coverage for them. Our teachers are paid wages they deserve so that our teachers aren’t struggling and living paycheck to paycheck.”

Yuricheck teared up near the end of her direct testimony, saying it was tough to take the stand.

“I’m a very positive person, and it’s difficult to get up here and say bad things about the school district I love and my colleagues and my students I love,” she said.

Yet, it felt important to testify.

“Being here, I’m doing my part to ensure that my students have a better tomorrow.”

Testimony in the trial is expected to continue through the rest of the week before breaking for the week of Thanksgiving, and then continuing again at least into January.

Broke in PhillyWHYY is one of over 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push towards economic justice. Follow us at @BrokeInPhilly.

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