‘There should be no underdogs in the education system’: Pa. students reflect on school funding trial

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Penn Wood High School in the William Penn district. (Emily Cohen for NewWorks)

Penn Wood High School in the William Penn district. (Emily Cohen for NewWorks)

A landmark trial over how Pennsylvania funds its public schools is wrapping up today.

For months, lawyers have traded objections, motions, and high-level arguments.

But what has it been like for students to hear people debate the kind of education they’re entitled to receive?

Victoria Monroe graduated from Penn Wood High School in Delaware County last spring, and has been keeping an eye on the trial.

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She noticed when defense attorneys for GOP lawmakers pointed to her district’s achievements: AP courses, an award-winning debate team, gold medals in track and field.

“They think that ‘Oh, you don’t have resources? Why are you thriving like this?’” Monroe said.

She sees her district, William Penn, as the scrappy underdog, fighting to succeed in spite of underfunding, on an uneven playing field.

“The odds are always against us no matter what, but that’s what kind of keeps us going, being the underdogs and exceeding every challenge we get,” Monroe said. “But there should be no underdogs in the education system.”

William Penn serves about 5,000 students from Philadelphia’s inner-ring suburbs, including Darby, Lansdowne, and Yeadon. Almost 90% of students are Black, and around 60% are classified as economically disadvantaged.

The district has the second highest tax rate in the state, but still struggles to afford basics, including enough textbooks so that students don’t have to share copies.

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Pennsylvania relies more heavily on local taxes to fund schools than most other states, and William Penn doesn’t have a lot of taxable wealth.

In 2014, it joined a lawsuit against the state, arguing that the current school funding model is unconstitutional.

“It can make you feel … inferior”

The plaintiffs, which include five other school districts, several parents, and two statewide groups, are asking lawmakers to put more money into education and distribute that money more equitably.

“When you’re in a school that’s not up to what the other schools are, and you’re aware of that, it’s hard to learn,” said Nasharie Stewart, another recent Penn Wood graduate who is following the trial. “It can make you feel, sometimes, very small or inferior.”

Growing up, Stewart understood that some students had access to more resources than she did. She remembers visiting a school in a nearby, wealthier district.

“I remember walking into this big glass school building and you could honestly feel the difference,” she said. “These kids weren’t sharing textbooks.hey had an entire library where constantly kids were just coming in and out. The books appeared to be in great condition. And it was just like, why not us?”

Stewart said it has been hard to hear defendants argue against more funding for districts like hers. She remembers one moment in the trial that received a lot of attention, when a defense attorney representing Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman asked why someone on the “McDonald’s career track” would need to learn algebra.

“Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many, many needs,” the attorney, John Krill, said. “I think there is a need for retail workers, people who know how to flip pizza crust.”

“My initial reaction to that statement was like, ‘Wow. The state, they see students who come from these districts a certain way, and it’s very different than they see other students,’” Stewart said.

If there is a high school-to-McDonald’s-pipeline, she argued, it’s because students don’t have the support and instruction they need to pursue other paths.

“That’s a reflection of how much we’re missing and how much these schools are lacking,” Stewart said.

Throughout the trial, school leaders described crumbling buildings, oversized classes, and limited funding for support staff like reading specialists.

The superintendent of Greater Johnstown talked about converting storage closets into classrooms, to deal with overcrowding. Wilkes-Barre’s superintendent said he was forced to cut all the district’s librarians, along with its K-8 art classes.

“The state is finally getting a glimpse into our struggles,” Stewart said. “Struggles that wealthier districts don’t have.”

Expert witnesses for the plaintiffs testified that Pennsylvania has some of the widest spending gaps between poor and wealthy districts in the nation, and that these gaps disproportionately affect students of color. They argued that increased funding is key to closing achievement gaps.

But what’s unconstitutional?

Defense attorneys pointed out the state has already taken steps to distribute money more equitably, including passing a fair funding formula in 2016 that directs more money to higher need districts. (Plaintiffs have noted that it only applies to a fraction of the state’s education budget, and say it doesn’t do enough to close the gaps.)

They also argued that Pennsylvania spends more per student than most other states, while questioning the relationship between school spending and student achievement.

But apart from those arguments, the defense asked a provocative, but critical question:  Does the state constitution actually say students like Stewart and Monroe must receive the same educational resources that peers in wealthier districts receive?

The defense didn’t deny that some districts have more than others, but said that doesn’t mean the system is unconstitutional. There is a difference between “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves,” they argued, and Pennsylvania is meeting its educational baseline.

Whether that argument works in court remains to be seen. It will likely be months before Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer issues a decision, and the losing side is expected to appeal.

But if you’re a student who has sat in a crumbling classroom, the argument stings.

Stewart recalled rushing out of a sophomore English class when the pipe burst overhead, and flooded the room. That kind of experience has an impact, she said.

“You’re in class trying to learn and you’re also worried about, ‘Is this going to happen again? What is the next classroom that’s going to fall apart?’” she said. “Your main focus should be what you’re learning, not if where you’re learning could become a danger or a hazard to you.”

For Victoria Monroe, all it takes is a walk through her former high school’s hallway to see that the state is falling short.

“I’m like, ‘Do you not see our school? Literally just look at it. Go on the inside. Use your eyes,” she said. “They’re just looking the other direction when really we’re calling out for help.”

At the same time, she said it’s hard for people to fully grasp what it’s like inside an under-funded school if they have never attended one.

“I could tell you, ‘Oh, we don’t have the staffing we need. We don’t have programs that support all of our students. We don’t have adequate mental health [services]. Our teachers and families from the school have to pick up where the resources stop,’” she said. “But you’ll never fully understand until you’re in those experiences.”

Still, she hopes the court tries to understand —and recognizes that schools like hers need more support.

In the meantime, her experience in a school with low ceilings and classrooms that “felt like dungeons” has played a role in her college major. She’s studying architecture, hoping to design buildings for vulnerable communities.

Both she and former classmate Nasharie Stewart have also gotten involved in advocating around school funding issues.

Stewart said the message she has heard, throughout the trial, is that it’s okay for students to struggle, because some of them will make it.

It’s a message she finds hurtful both for the students who don’t make it and the ones like her, who are considered success stories. She’s studying political science and psychology at Johns Hopkins University.

“I’m well aware that I’m the example that opposing counsel refers to when they talk about students being intelligent and industrious enough to go off to college,” Stewart said.

But getting into school is only half the battle.

“The other half of that battle is when you’re in your first lecture hall and you realize that you’re already behind,” she said. “Not because you personally did something wrong, but because the system you were taught in is so foundationally flawed that every now and again it cracks.”

Stewart said she is still feeling the effects of attending an under-funded district.

She hopes something changes, so that students start to receive “the education that’s their right to have, and so that in the future no one has to be a part of this battle practically begging the state to look at us and fund us correctly.”

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