From a lack of reading specialists, to crowded kindergarten classrooms and crumbling buildings, the former superintendent of the William Penn School District testified Thursday about the needs that drove the Delaware County district to file a historic school funding lawsuit against the state.
Jane Harbert, who led William Penn in 2014 when it brought the lawsuit along with five other districts, several parents and two statewide organizations, retired from the district in June 2020 — after the pandemic had brought even more challenges to light.
Listening to other superintendents in a spring 2020 Zoom meeting discussing plans to distribute Chromebooks to students, “I’m sitting there thinking, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to get a device in every child’s hand. I have no idea, because I know we don’t have enough,’” Harbert said Thursday, testifying before a Commonwealth Court judge in Harrisburg, where the trial has been underway since mid-November.
While the district was later able to distribute Chromebooks, there weren’t enough to go around: By late June 2020, after months of virtual learning, it had only been able to provide one per family.
It was the most recent example presented by Harbert of insufficient resources available to the district, which enrolls about 5,000 students, close to 90% of whom are Black. The state classifies most William Penn students as economically disadvantaged. And despite taxing residents at the second-highest rate in the state, William Penn is underfunded, Harbert said.
The reason, plaintiffs argue, is that Pennsylvania has failed to sufficiently fund public education — leaving most of the burden to local taxpayers, which results in wide resource gaps between rich and poor communities. For a less affluent district like William Penn, “it doesn’t really matter how high we can raise the taxes,” Harbert said: It doesn’t yield enough revenue to cover rising costs.
And while the state has directed more funding to needier districts in recent years — running a portion of its main subsidy to public schools through a formula that accounts for poverty and English learners, among other factors — those boosts haven’t kept pace with expenses. From 2015 through 2020, William Penn received on average an additional $636,000 each year from the state; its unreimbursed costs for special education services, meanwhile, grew an average of $1.3 million a year during the same time frame, Harbert said.
“My No. 1 challenge was the budget,” Harbert said. And that had ramifications for students, she said.
Many children entering kindergarten in William Penn haven’t had access to prekindergarten programs to develop crucial skills — like using expressive language, or the ability to hear sounds in words, Harbert said. Those students require extra help, but the district’s kindergarten class sizes — sometimes 28 or more — make that difficult for teachers.
Harbert wanted to put interventions in place at the youngest grades: adding instructional assistants to allow for more small-group learning, and reading specialists to provide one-on-one tutoring to struggling students. That would likely result in “significant improvement” in test scores across the district, she said.
But she wasn’t able to carry out that plan. Tutoring the numbers of first, second and third graders she deemed necessary would require 30 to 35 reading specialists, Harbert said. Instead, she could afford zero.
She also had a limited number of elementary school principals — one juggled two buildings — as well as counselors, who were “primarily working in crisis mode,” and psychologists, who were booked writing individualized education plans for the district’s larger-than-typical population of special education students.
And the district’s facilities “were in terrible shape,” Harbert said. Four schools lacked air conditioning, while heating and ventilation systems were unreliable: Harbert testified to photographs depicting a high school classroom where the teacher and students were bundled in coats because the heat was out. Other photos showed paint bubbling up where water had leaked into walls and ceilings, an inoperable window, and a basement art room bisected by a drainage pipe.
Students’ ability to bring textbooks home was limited, because classrooms had one set, Harbert said. That had a “snowball effect”: Students couldn’t review the books at home, while teachers had to do extra work to make homework assignments. It was also harder for parents to help children without having access to the material.
The district also had to discontinue some extracurricular offerings — including tutoring — because it couldn’t offer late busing home to those students, and parents couldn’t provide transportation, Harbert said.
During cross-examination, a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler, one of the Republican legislators who are defendants in the case, focused instead on what the district was able to offer students — a theme throughout the trial as defense attorneys have questioned plaintiffs.
The lawyer, Patrick Northen, asked Harbert whether she had identified any classes that William Penn was missing in core subjects — English, math, science or social studies — that were “fundamental to a child’s education.” Harbert said she had not.
Northen also asked about a variety of Advanced Placement courses offered by the district, and noted that it won recognition on the AP District Honor Roll one year for increasing scores on the tests, alongside fellow Delaware County districts Marple Newtown and Radnor.
While William Penn’s graduation rate ranks near the bottom of the state — 73% in 2018 — Northen pointed not to the low number, but the discrepancies between boys (65%) and girls (82%).
“Did the school district provide greater resources to female students?” Northen asked.
Because the district did not, that must indicate there were “factors beyond resources” that impacted success, Northen said.
“I don’t agree with that statement,” Harbert said.