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5 takeaways from Pennsylvania’s ongoing, landmark school-funding trial after one month

In poorer districts, some kindergartners have 15 minutes of recess, and athletics are sorely lacking. But defense attorneys questioned how districts spend their money.

Supporters of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school-funding system participate in a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg in November. A landmark trial is underway in Harrisburg.
Supporters of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school-funding system participate in a rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg in November. A landmark trial is underway in Harrisburg.Read more

Over more than four weeks of testimony, the landmark trial in the challenge to Pennsylvania’s school-funding system has featured superintendents and teachers from rural, urban, and suburban communities describing cash-strapped schools — including Delaware County’s William Penn district — that struggle to meet state academic standards.

Republican lawmakers who are defendants in the lawsuit have questioned the validity of the tests measuring those standards, the value of imposing them — and whether the districts suing the state are as resource-deficient as they claim.

At issue are arguments that Pennsylvania’s method of funding public education — which relies heavily on local property taxes, resulting in wide gaps in spending between rich and poor communities — is so inadequate and inequitable that it violates the state constitution.

Here are five takeaways from recent testimony in the case, which is being heard by Commonwealth Court Judge Renee Cohn Jubilerer in Harrisburg. The trial is on break until the new year, and plaintiffs — six districts including William Penn; parents, including a Philadelphia mother; and two statewide organizations — expect to finish presenting their case in late January.

Some kindergartners have 15 minutes of recess, and not enough teachers

Most of Nicole Miller’s kindergarten students at Evans Elementary in the William Penn School District haven’t attended preschool. Some can’t recognize numbers and others are reading — but Miller is one adult in a room with 25 students of varying needs, and can’t give students as much attention as she wants to.

Kindergartners get 15 minutes a day for recess — students sometimes cry that it’s not long enough, but it’s what the district can provide, Miller testified Tuesday. There’s limited playground equipment, and her students can only use the swings and slide every other day.

”Recess is short simply because there’s not enough staffing to cover a longer block of time,” said Miller.

Substitute teachers are in short supply in districts around the country, but the need is particularly acute in low-wealth districts like William Penn. With Miller out to testify in Harrisburg, the plan had been for the school’s other kindergarten teacher to take her entire class, meaning 50 students would have been in one class. But that teacher was out, so the autistic support teacher subbed in.

It’s a reciprocal arrangement. Miller often absorbs other teachers’ students when they’re absent. On an average day, she has five or six students from other classes, forcing her to scramble lesson plans to meet all kids’ needs.

Where athletics could make a difference, facilities at William Penn are lacking

Raphal “Rap” Curry, William Penn’s athletic director, knows how athletics can make a difference in the lives of students in the struggling Delaware County school system — they did in his. Curry, who came from a single-parent family, found sports early and earned an athletic scholarship to St. Joseph’s University, giving him opportunities he said would have been unavailable otherwise.

Curry, who testified Tuesday, wants the same chances for his students, most of whom are from economically disadvantaged homes. But William Penn’s facilities are lacking, so it had to cut field hockey and freshman sports, and students who want to use a weight room do so in a poorly ventilated shower room with old, donated equipment. There are no lights for the football field or facilities within the district for the track and field students who compete in shot put, high jump, and pole vault.

(Dennis Manyeah, a William Penn graduate, recently won the Atlantic 10 championship for high jump; he and other William Penn high-jumpers just arrived early at competitions to practice, Curry said.)

Curry tells his students, “ ‘Hold on, these opportunities are out here for you,’ but it doesn’t feel real,” he testified. “It doesn’t feel legitimate, because you know that the other schools who were a couple miles away have all of these things built in and you don’t.”

Defense lawyers question why some students need biology

In questioning the superintendent of a rural school district, a lawyer for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman repeatedly asked why the state’s academic standards mattered for students entering certain professions.

“What use would a carpenter have for biology?” asked John Krill of Matthew Splain, superintendent of the Otto-Eldred School District in McKean County and president of the board of directors of the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, one of the plaintiffs. Splain had said his district’s scores on state standardized tests in biology and other subjects were not acceptable.

“What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” Krill continued.

As lawyers for the plaintiffs objected, asking what the relevance was, Krill said that the trial was about whether Pennsylvania was meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “thorough and efficient” system of education.

“The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth,” Krill said. “Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs. There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”

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

Margie Wakelin, a lawyer for the Education Law Center representing plaintiffs, later asked Splain why his district felt the academic standards were important. “We obviously can’t predict what our students will have interest in,” or what careers they might pursue, Splain said, saying the standards served as a “baseline.”

Would it be helpful, Wakelin asked, for a retail worker “to understand basic biology of viruses during a global pandemic” — to decide whether to get a vaccine, what steps to take to keep a business open, or to send children to school for in-person learning?

Splain said it would be.

Defense attorneys continue to question how districts spend money. Administrators continue to emphasize unmet needs.

Defense attorneys have continued to press school administrators who say their districts are underfunded on their spending decisions — asking the chief financial officer for the Lancaster School District, for instance, why it chose to equip students and classrooms with Apple products, when Chromebooks were cheaper.

Matthew Przywara said the district felt Apple had an “educational focus” that aligned with its goals.

Earlier, Przywara said the district was underfunded and laid out some of the numbers behind that assessment: While the district enrolls about 11,400 students, it has some of the state’s largest concentrations of poor students and English learners. Pennsylvania’s funding formula — which applies to some, but not the majority of the money it sends to school districts — assigns greater weight to students in those categories and others with needs requiring additional services.

Under that calculation, Lancaster’s enrollment is the equivalent of 17,400, Przywara said. When based on the district’s actual enrollment, its spending per pupil is higher than 80% of districts in Pennsylvania. Divide the spending by the enrollment accounting for student needs, and it drops to the bottom half.

And that enrollment calculation might be underestimated, Przywara said, given that the formula doesn’t take into account homeless students or those who are refugees; the district has about 500 students in each category.

The district, which has a budget of about $235 million, projects a $37 million deficit by 2025, said Przywara, who described a number of needs facing the district, including crumbling school buildings. It used $10 million of federal COVID relief money to fill a budget hole this year to avoid laying off staff.

Early education narrows gaps, but it would cost more

While testimony has largely focused on Pennsylvania’s K-12 system, an expert for plaintiffs testified that prekindergarten could help narrow achievement gaps — but the state would need to spend more to expand access and improve program quality.

Pennsylvania’s PreK Counts program — the state’s largest prekindergarten program, open to 3- and 4-year-olds from families with incomes below 300% of the federal poverty limit — spends about $8,200 per student, according to Steven Barnett, founding codirector of the National Institute for Early Education Research. In contrast, preschool programs in New Jersey’s former Abbott districts — the subject of a landmark school funding case dating to the 1980s — spend about $15,000 per student.

» READ MORE: Gov. Wolf wants full-day kindergarten in every Pa. school district. Delivering it might not be that easy.

The New Jersey programs have been successful, Barnett said. He researched programs in the 15 largest of the 31 Abbott districts and found lasting achievement gains, including a 15-percentage-point reduction in the number of students held back a grade, and a 7-point reduction in special-education placements.

Some data show positive results from Pennsylvania’s PreK Counts program, but Barnett said it doesn’t meet benchmarks for what research has found make a high-quality early education program. And only 40% of eligible Pennsylvania children are enrolled.