Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Four takeaways from Pa.’s landmark school-funding trial, two weeks into Republican witnesses

A school finance expert called by GOP lawmakers disputed allegations in the lawsuit challenging how Pennsylvania pays for public schools.

Supporters of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school funding system rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg on the first day of trial in November.
Supporters of a lawsuit challenging Pennsylvania's school funding system rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Harrisburg on the first day of trial in November.Read moreKALIM A. BHATTI / For The Inquirer

As Republican legislative leaders defend Pennsylvania against a historic lawsuit challenging its school funding system, they called as a witness this week a school finance expert who characterized the state as both in line with peers and increasing education spending at a faster rate than others nationally.

Jason Willis, a director with the California-based WestEd education research group who consults for states and school systems on school finance, disputed allegations in the lawsuit brought by six school districts, two statewide groups, and several parents claiming Pennsylvania’s method of funding public education is so inadequate and inequitable that it violates the state constitution.

He also disagreed with some findings of one of the petitioners’ experts, Matthew Kelly, a Pennsylvania State University assistant professor who calculated that the poorest 20% of Pennsylvania school districts spend thousands of dollars less per pupil than the wealthiest 20%, despite greater student needs.

Willis said he didn’t agree with how Kelly divided and compared the state’s 500 districts, and objected to analysis by Kelly showing some areas of state education spending had declined in real dollars.

The testimony Thursday and Friday, nearly three months into the landmark trial, was part of the second week of witnesses called by lawyers for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler.

It drew pushback from lawyers for plaintiffs, who questioned Willis on his methodology.

Pennsylvania’s peers include New York but not New Jersey

A group of eight peer states for Pennsylvania included Delaware, New York, Arkansas, and Texas, for instance, but not neighboring New Jersey. Willis said that was based on New Jersey’s “highly urban population.”

In concluding that how school districts spend money matters — rather than funding levels alone — and that some are more “efficient and effective” than others, Willis produced charts comparing the petitioner districts with others in Pennsylvania that his firm identified as peers, mapping their per-pupil spending compared with their students’ academic growth scores.

Among a group of 20 peers for the Lancaster School District was the urban Harrisburg district, as well as suburban Radnor and Jenkintown.

Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, a lawyer for plaintiffs, noted that more than 90% of Lancaster’s nearly 11,000 students are economically disadvantaged, the seventh-highest share among the state’s 500 districts — compared with the 730-student Jenkintown, ranking 468th, and Radnor, 488th.

“You found it fair to compare one of the biggest, poorest districts in the commonwealth with one of the smallest, wealthiest districts,” he said. Willis said looking at the full peer groups provided a “reasonable and fair comparison.”

» READ MORE: Lancaster schools spend above the state average. But poor students need a lot more, superintendent testified at historic funding trial.

Urevick-Ackelsberg also questioned Willis on his per-pupil spending calculations. For instance, his report identified Chester Upland as spending $36,000 per student; the Pennsylvania Department of Education reported the district spending around $17,000 during the same years Willis considered.

Willis said his figures were adjusted for “regional cost,” but Urevick-Ackelsberg asked whether he had failed to properly account for charter schools, which are funded through school districts. Counting a district’s spending on charters, but not the students attending them, would inflate per-pupil spending figures for districts with sizable charter populations — including many of Pennsylvania’s poorest, Urevick-Ackelsberg said.

Willis said he didn’t know whether he included charter students in the calculations.

An ‘A’ for funding but an ‘F’ for equity

Looking at Pennsylvania broadly, Willis said he disagreed with the lawsuit’s characterization that the state’s funding system was “irrational and inequitable” and “drastically underfunds” districts.

Recent actions taken by the state “would suggest they are aiming to address issues of inequitable distribution of school funding,” Willis said, including a funding formula enacted in 2016 that directs more money to lower-wealth districts with needier populations of students, including English learners and those living in poverty.

Still, the new method only applies to a fraction of its main subsidy to public schools — which plaintiffs say hasn’t been sufficient to remedy inequities in the poorest districts, which can’t raise as much money as wealthier communities in a state that relies heavily on local taxes to fund public education.

Willis said Pennsylvania “compares favorably to many other states” in its education funding level and effort — a measure of how much money is spent compared with available resources — as well as how equitably it distributes aid.

He cited reports from Education Week and the Education Law Center in New Jersey grading states on their school finance systems. (The Education Law Center in Pennsylvania is one of the groups representing plaintiffs.)

But while Willis noted that the law center gave Pennsylvania an “A” for its funding level and effort, his analysis omitted that the same report gave the state an “F” for equity, Urevick-Ackelsberg said.

One witness was accused of plagiarism

Earlier in the week, Mark Ornstein, a former Michigan charter network CEO and Delaware County Intermediate Unit and Philadelphia School District administrator, was abruptly withdrawn as a witness for lawmakers after several instances of apparent plagiarism were uncovered in his expert report.

A lawyer for Corman asked to qualify Ornstein as an expert witness, but lawyers for the petitioners objected to Ornstein’s qualification as an expert, and under questioning, asked Ornstein if students at University Prep, the charter network he led, would fail if they plagiarized academic material.

“That’s hard to say,” Ornstein said.

Dan Cantor, the lawyer, presented multiple sections of Ornstein’s report that appeared identical or virtually identical to texts written by education professors and a Penn State sophomore, citing “massive plagiarism.”

Asked about one section that appeared nearly indistinguishable from information written by the Penn State student, Ornstein said: “I don’t know. I don’t remember. There were lots of articles, lots of citations, and I can’t answer exactly what I pulled what from what.”

What do low test scores among English learners really mean?

Earlier in their defense, legislators called an expert in English language instruction to argue that low standardized test scores among students who aren’t fluent in English don’t reflect whether they’re receiving an adequate education.

Christine Rossell, a professor emerita at Boston University who helped write a now-repealed law banning bilingual education in California, was dismissive of the role of standardized tests in measuring education quality more broadly — saying the tests are designed to produce a bell curve in which half of students score above the curve, and half below.

For English learners, “it’s even worse,” she said. “Unlike other students — Black or Hispanic students, if their scores go up, they’re still Black or Hispanic.” But English learners whose scores improve are no longer considered English learners, she said, “so the group always consists of low scorers.”

Under cross-examination, Rossell acknowledged states may still consider students English learners for up to two years after they’ve become proficient in the language.