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Superintendent Hite testifies Philly students meet minimal standards ‘because that’s all they have access to’

In a landmark school-funding trial Tuesday, Hite noted that an investment in more resources means students do better.

Superintendent William Hite talks in a press conference at the Philadelphia School District Headquarters in October.
Superintendent William Hite talks in a press conference at the Philadelphia School District Headquarters in October.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Philadelphia School District students have large class sizes and often lack adequate support and staff. Most have limited access to extracurricular activities and higher-level classes, and they often learn in outdated and sometimes environmentally problematic buildings, Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. testified in a landmark school-funding case Tuesday.

It follows, he said, that while 70% of Philadelphia’s 120,000 schoolchildren graduate from high school on time, those credentials often mean less than they do in other, better-funded districts.

“In many cases, they are really meeting a minimum standard because that’s all they have access to,” Hite said.

Prompted by attorney Kristina Moon, Hite noted that in nearby wealthy Lower Merion, 95% of students meet standards in state English exams, 85% in Algebra I exams, and 92% in biology exams. At Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School, not far from Lower Merion, those numbers are much more stark — 6% of students pass English exams, 5% pass Algebra I exams, and 2% pass biology exams.

Lower Merion educates primarily white and wealthy students; Philadelphia’s student population is predominately made up of students of color, and students living in poverty. But there’s a large gap even between economically disadvantaged students in Lower Merion and at Overbrook. In Lower Merion: 80% of economically disadvantaged students passed state exams in English, 72% passed algebra tests, and 76% passed the biology exam. At Overbrook, the numbers were much lower: 2%, 4%, and no students at all.

That has nothing to do with Philadelphia students’ capability, Hite said.

“It’s a clear indication in my opinion that when there’s an investment in more resources, even the economically disadvantaged children do better,” Hite said in testimony in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg that was also livestreamed.

The district is not one of the plaintiffs in the case filed seven years ago by six school districts, groups including the Pennsylvania NAACP, and parents — including one from Philadelphia. Petitioners allege the state’s funding system is both inadequate and inequitable, and violates the state constitution.

The case’s outcome could have significant effects on school budgets in Philadelphia and throughout the state.

Philadelphia schools, Hite said, “don’t have enough funds to meet the needs of our students.”

For hours, he offered examples, from the number of certified librarians in the district (six, for 220 schools) to typical class sizes, up to 30 students in kindergarten through third grade and 33 students in fourth through 12th grades.

Asked by Moon why the district doesn’t have smaller class sizes for its student population, which generally has higher concentrations of English-language learners, economically disadvantaged children, and students who need special education services, Hite said it was a matter of money.

“Understanding that our desire is always to have fewer children in classrooms, but based on our budget allocation, we have to set this formula in place because it’s what we can afford,” Hite said.

He recalled the district’s disastrous financial shape when he arrived in Philadelphia in 2012: so broke it needed to borrow money to pay the bills. Hite had to close 24 schools and lay off 4,000 workers, including all assistant principals, counselors, and secretaries, to make ends meet.

“It doesn’t instill a lot of trust in an educational entity when you are talking about opening schools with only teachers and principals, without many of the extracurricular activities and things for many children and for many families that would represent school,” Hite said.

The district is alone among Pennsylvania’s 500 school systems, unable to raise its own revenue. It relies on Harrisburg and City Hall for the bulk of its funding.

Philadelphia’s finances have improved since those doomsday cuts, but even on more stable footing, the situation remains precarious, Hite said.

An infusion of $1 billion in federal COVID-19 relief money is a major help, Hite said; it has gone to pay not just for personal protective equipment but also some in-school supports. The district hired more counselors to help with students’ social and emotional needs. In the past, schools needed 900 students to automatically get a second school counselor; because of the stimulus funds, the district lowered that to 700 students.

But that’s a temporary fix, Hite said.

“If those moneys aren’t replaced by some other funding source, then we would have to remove those positions,” the superintendent said.

Philadelphia also lacks adequate funding to maintain its large stock of aging buildings, Hite said. The average city school is more than 70 years old, and many have lead, asbestos, and mold problems. A 2017 analysis found that the school system has $4.5 billion in deferred maintenance costs.

To illustrate Hite’s points, Moon showed photos from a visit to Roosevelt Elementary, where water intrusion caused lead paint to flake and peel, scattering paint chips and rusting the floor, and to Randolph Technical High School, where a leaking roof caused standing water in a science lab, rendering the room temporarily unusable to students.

Both those issues have since been resolved, but the district has far more repairs to make than capacity and funds to make them, the superintendent said.

“We try to prioritize the most significant issues, and respond to those issues so that we are both meeting the regulatory requirements for a response but also ensuring that our young people and staff members are safe,” Hite said.

Philadelphia has evidence that greater investments lead to better outcomes for students, the plaintiffs’ attorneys said, pointing to the case of Mitchell Elementary in Southwest Philadelphia. At one point, it was designated one of the district’s lowest-performing schools and placed in the Acceleration Network, given more scrutiny but also more resources — guaranteed reading and math specialists, for instance.

Mitchell has flourished, and exited the Acceleration Network. That means that soon, it will lose all its extra supports, despite still having a needy student population.

“After this year, many of the supports that allowed Mitchell to see the type of success that they received must be moved to other schools that need that level of support,” Hite said.

The trial began in November and is expected to last for several more weeks.