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‘A systemic, widespread failure’: Pa. school funding is depriving students, plaintiffs argue at start of historic trial

The statements launched what is expected to be possibly months of testimony and argument in a state capital courtroom over whether Pennsylvania should be ordered to fix its funding system.

Supporters of changing Pennsylvania's school funding rally on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg on the first day of a historical trial challenging public education funding as inadequate and highlighting disparities between wealthy and poor districts.
Supporters of changing Pennsylvania's school funding rally on the steps of the Capitol in Harrisburg on the first day of a historical trial challenging public education funding as inadequate and highlighting disparities between wealthy and poor districts.Read moreKALIM A. BHATTI / For The Inquirer

Pennsylvania’s public education system is broken, a lawyer for plaintiffs suing the state asserted Friday, opening a historic trial that they hope will spur drastic changes in funding for schools.

The conclusion is clear whether one looks at gaps between rich and poor school districts or students’ lack of proficiency on standardized tests, the lawyer, Katrina Robson, told a Commonwealth Court judge in Harrisburg. But beyond the numbers, she said, is a human toll, shaping the futures of hundreds of thousands of children being deprived of resources.

Robson cited how the athletic director for Delaware County’s William Penn School District sees his job as “selling hope” to children who didn’t have a weight room until he salvaged castoff equipment from a school in Ohio, and how the “lucky few” elementary students to get reading intervention in the Greater Johnstown School District get that instruction in a supply closet. Both, she said, reflect how Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on local revenues to fund public education is starving schools in its poorest communities, and leaving local school administrators with no recourse.

“There is a systemic, widespread failure, and it is devastating the lives of the children they are responsible for educating, the teachers they are charged with supporting, and the communities they serve,” said Robson, representing the six school districts, including William Penn and Johnstown, and four parents and two statewide organizations who brought the claim that Pennsylvania’s school funding is so inadequate and inequitable that it violates the state constitution.

Lawyers for Republican lawmakers, who are among the defendants in the case, painted a much rosier picture — saying that Pennsylvania students are succeeding under the current system and that the state does a better job at funding public schools than most others. While they acknowledged that some Pennsylvania schools have less than others, they argued that the educations those schools are providing pass constitutional muster.

“I’m not going to stand here and say all of the school buildings ... are the Taj Mahal,” said Patrick Northen, a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler (R., Lancaster). But he said children have “chairs to sit in, desks or tables to write at, walls and roofs, working plumbing” — and adequate opportunities to achieve.

“The fact that some students are better equipped to take advantage of opportunities offered or perhaps are more industrious doesn’t negate the fact that opportunities exist,” Northen said.

The statements before Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer — in a proceeding with limited courtroom seating but streamed online — launched what is expected to be possibly months of testimony and argument over whether the state should be ordered to fix a funding system that funnels billions of dollars in aid to schools statewide.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education are also defendants in the case. But their lawyer did not appear to challenge plaintiffs’ claims Friday, instead describing for the judge the role of standardized testing and strategies education officials believe will close achievement gaps, including improved early education programs, academic and behavioral interventions, and sufficient numbers of teachers and counselors.

Outside the courtroom, hundreds of activists, parents, and education-watchers from around the commonwealth gathered on the Capitol steps at midday, ringing bells, waving signs, and calling for better conditions for Pennsylvania students.

“From looking for money to hire full-time school counselors at our elementary schools to fighting to keep our extracurriculars alive, we are consistently being deprived of the supports and services we should rely on to have a well-rounded educational experience,” Jimi Chavalaporn, a student at Pottstown High School, told the crowd.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Helen Gym said Friday was “a day of reckoning.”

And Donna Cooper, executive director of ChildrenFirst, a Philadelphia-based child welfare organization, said should the plaintiffs prevail, “it will have a positive ripple effect for generations to come.”

Friday followed a long road for the case, which was filed in 2014 and initially rejected by the Commonwealth Court as outside its purview. But it was revived in 2017 by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which decided for the first time that courts could intervene in evaluating whether the state was providing the “thorough and efficient” system of education promised by its constitution.

The delegates to Pennsylvania’s constitutional convention in 1873 “viewed the education clause as second in importance to no other,” Robson told the judge in her opening statement. She said the provision requires “more than a bare minimum” — serving all children, “not just some.”

The defendants’ lawyers said it would be a “slippery slope” for the court to wade into educational programming and the need for things like smaller class sizes or more psychologists. They also signaled they will present witnesses to support their claim that charter schools — privately managed but publicly funded — have thrived.

Robson noted their claims about Pennsylvania’s relatively high spending on schools and said those conceal stark disparities between rich and poor districts — with gaps that the Pennsylvania Department of Education has said are among the widest nationally.

“We aren’t talking about minor imperfections,” she said. Plaintiffs say the per-pupil spending gap between the state’s wealthiest and poorest districts is $4,800.

Robson said the state isn’t putting enough money into education overall — citing a study commissioned by the General Assembly and written into law more than a decade ago that identified the cost of providing an adequate education in each of the state’s 500 districts. Using that analysis, the current shortfall is $4.6 billion, Robson said. Pennsylvania’s main subsidy for public schools is about $7 billion.

While Pennsylvania adopted a funding formula in 2016 that steers more money to poorer districts, it only applies to a fraction of what the state spends on public education — meaning most state aid to schools is based on decades-old demographics that don’t account for increased poverty or needs, Robson said.

And given the heavy reliance on local taxes — which account for more than half of all funding for Pennsylvania’s public schools — poorer schools are more challenged to raise what they need, Robson said. She described how, if it were to tax residents at the average statewide rate, the New Hope-Solebury district can net $21,000 per pupil, while the rural Shenandoah Valley district in Schuylkill County — one of the plaintiffs — could tax residents at a higher rate and only get $4,000.

That has an impact, Robson argued. In the state’s poorest districts, fewer than 30% of students are considered proficient in math, and fewer than 45% in English language arts. And students from low-income families who attend better-funded school districts score higher than similarly disadvantaged peers in districts with less money: In the state’s wealthiest districts, 40% of low-income students are proficient in math, while fewer than 25% in the poorest districts are.

There are high-achieving students in poorly funded districts, Robson said. But just because some students succeed — or administrators and teachers in those districts are sometimes able to provide advanced courses or use their own money to pay for supplies — doesn’t mean the education system passes muster, she said.

“That makes them heroes,” Robson said. “It does not make the schools adequately funded.”

Republican lawyers downplayed the significance of test scores — which they said didn’t capture school quality or reflect inadequate funding — and argued that more money wouldn’t necessarily improve outcomes.

Comparisons between rich and poor districts are “a red herring,” Northen said, dismissing them as “an appeal to sympathy or vague notions of fairness.” Nowhere in the state constitution does it say the state must provide a “uniform” public education, he said.

When testimony resumes Monday, the plaintiffs plan to call witnesses from the Panther Valley School District and experts including Matthew Kelly, the Pennsylvania State University education professor who analyzed spending and performance gaps between rich and poor districts, and Derek Black, a constitutional law professor at the University of South Carolina School of Law. He’s expected to testify about the history of Pennsylvania’s education clause.