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7 takeaways from the first week of Pennsylvania’s landmark school funding trial

The judge heard about Pennsylvania's guarantee to provide a "thorough and efficient" education. And an expert testified about a funding formula that disproportionately slights students of color.

Supporters of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school funding system as inadequate and inequitable participate in a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg on Nov. 12, the first day of trial in the historic case.
Supporters of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school funding system as inadequate and inequitable participate in a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg on Nov. 12, the first day of trial in the historic case.Read more

The first week of trial in the landmark case challenging Pennsylvania’s school funding system featured both personal accounts of the impact of insufficient funding and expert testimony on how state aid is doled out to districts, leaving wide gaps between the state’s poorest and wealthiest communities.

It also addressed the legal question of what kind of education system Pennsylvania is required to provide — with the school districts, statewide organizations, and parents who sued the state calling an expert who testified about the state constitution’s mandate for a “thorough and efficient” system of education. Republican legislative leaders, who are defendants in the case, questioned whether that standard had already been satisfied.

The trial before Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubilerer in Harrisburg is expected to last eight to 10 weeks. Testimony paused for the holiday week, and will resume Monday. Here are some takeaways from its opening week:

The meaning of ‘thorough and efficient’

Derek Black, a University of South Carolina law professor and expert in constitutional education clauses, outlined the language in Pennsylvania’s constitution guaranteeing children the right to a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”

The education section, crafted during the 1872-83 Constitutional Convention, was of paramount importance, said Black. To the constitutional delegates, establishing an educational system wasn’t just about providing a system, but providing a good system.

“I concluded they were trying to ensure a high quality of education,” Black said.

Prior to the convention, there was a system of “common schools,” but the delegates found that it was untenable. “When it came down to it, inevitably the poor kids would get an inferior education,” Black said.

Lawyers for the defense pressed Black on what the education clause required and how the mandate fit with other state priorities.

“Should all of [the state’s] budget be spent on public education?” asked John Krill, a lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman.

No, Black said — but added the state has “no choice” but to spend money on education.

Later, Krill asked Black if a “thorough and efficient education requires every public school to offer Mandarin” — drawing objection from plaintiffs. Jubilerer cut off the line of questioning.

Pennsylvania is an outlier

Matthew Kelly, a Penn State education professor and key expert for the plaintiffs, testified about Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on local taxes to fund schools. With 55% of education funding coming from local sources, Pennsylvania ranks 45th among states for the revenue share it contributes to public schools, Kelly said.

Because poorer communities can’t raise as much tax revenue as richer ones, even while taxing residents at much higher rates, that leads to spending gaps between rich and poor districts that the state Department of Education has described as among the widest in the nation, Kelly said.

Hold harmless?

But the other piece of the equation is how the state distributes its portion of the education funding pie. While the state uses a formula that aims to proportionately distribute more aid to poorer communities with greater student needs, it only applies to a fraction of Pennsylvania’s main $7 billion subsidy for public schools — about 14%.

That approach is sometimes referred to as “hold harmless,” because the formula is applied only when the state calculates its year-over-year increases in disbursements to districts, not the total aid each receives.

Applying the formula more broadly to districts’ total subsidies would redistribute existing funding and mean cuts for most districts. But it also could mean a boost in aid to needier districts now being shortchanged, Kelly said: 143 districts would be owed more than $1 billion.

While many states enact a phase-in period for new funding formulas, “one of this magnitude … makes Pennsylvania an outlier,” harming poorer districts, Kelly said.

“I would call it irrational,” he said.

Students of color are disproportionately impacted

Half of Black students and 40% of Hispanic students in Pennsylvania attend schools in the poorest fifth of districts, Kelly said. And 80% attend schools that would receive more funding if the state’s formula were properly applied.

Legislative leaders had unsuccessfully argued before the trial to bar testimony about racial disparities and objected again when it came up last week. “This is a case about wealth and not a case about race or ethnicity,” said Patrick Northen, a lawyer for House Speaker Bryan Cutler.

Big classes, outdated books

There aren’t enough textbooks in Panther Valley fifth-grade history teacher Tara Yuricheck’s classrooms to go around, she told the judge. In her largest class, with 34 students, “I feel like I can’t get to them all sometimes.”

Yuricheck, who testified along with Panther Valley Superintendent David McAndrew — providing the first testimony on behalf of a plaintiff school district — painted a picture of a district, one that stretches between Schuylkill and Carbon Counties, that’s barely scraping by. Her class uses textbooks printed in 1997, with information listing Bill Clinton as president and out-of-date population figures. She’d love to replace the books, but there are too many other competing priorities.

“It’s like a triage in our district with money,” said Yuricheck, a graduate of Panther Valley schools and parent of two current Panther Valley students. She described a disappearing tax base in the former coal-mining region of Pennsylvania: Her own parents lost their house, and the school system simply can’t raise locally all the money it needs to educate its students adequately, Yuricheck said.

Are most Pa. school districts underfunded?

The case isn’t just about gaps between higher- and lower-wealth districts. More than 80% of Pennsylvania’s 500 districts are underfunded by a total of $4.6 billion, Kelly said — based on a 2007 study commissioned by the General Assembly to assess what it would cost to provide students with what they need to meet state standards.

That analysis — which was incorporated into state law, but hasn’t been used for a decade — laid out targets for what each district should be spending. Kelly, who used that methodology to calculate the current shortfall, said $4.6 billion was likely an understatement, given that district costs have risen significantly since the analysis.

Lawyers for Republican legislative leaders seized on those figures in an apparent effort to undermine Kelly’s analysis.

“Is your opinion that even though … Pennsylvania spends more per pupil than all but five states in the country, that more than 80% of school districts in the state are still underfunded?” Northen asked Kelly. (U.S. Census data from 2019 show that at $16,864, Pennsylvania ranked eighth in per-pupil spending among states, including revenue from state, local, and federal sources.)

Kelly said that average didn’t reveal how funds were distributed.

Northen also asked how the $4.6 billion shortfall would be filled, given that Kelly’s analysis assigned responsibility to the state for only $2.6 billion. Kelly said he was just following the methodology previously adopted by lawmakers.

What do standardized test scores show?

Kelly testified that higher-spending districts had better student outcomes, including on state assessments. On the Keystone exams, for instance, students in the poorest fifth of districts scored 31 percentage points lower in algebra, and 28 percentage points lower in literature than those in the wealthiest quintile. And students classified by the state as economically disadvantaged who attend districts that spend more money perform better than their counterparts in lower-spending communities, he said.

Northen, quoting one researcher who contends that standardized assessments are “testing privilege as much as they’re testing academics,” asked whether Kelly was “aware of research questioning the validity of standardized tests as a measure of what students have learned.”

Yes, Kelly said. But he noted there was a “robust body of scholarship” linking school funding to student outcomes.

Kelly also acknowledged there were low-spending, high-achieving districts in Pennsylvania, and districts that spend more than others, but perform worse — including Lancaster, one of the plaintiffs. But he cautioned that comparisons need to account for student needs, and said those examples were less important than the broader pattern.