Former top Pa. education official testifies that school funding is a ‘root cause’ of achievement gaps
He said the disparities are wide enough to place Pennsylvania near the bottom of states in a national measure comparing achievement gaps.
Pennsylvania has wide achievement gaps between students that are directly linked to school funding, a former top state education official testified Tuesday during a historic trial over how the state pays for public schools.
Matthew Stem, who until June served as Pennsylvania’s deputy secretary of K-12 education, said the department considered the lack of resources a “fundamental root cause” of disparities in academic performance between students. And without additional funding, he said, “it’s very, very unlikely that Pennsylvania will be able to close the achievement gaps we’ve seen for decades, particularly for schools with high percentages of students in poverty.”
His testimony came during the second week of trial in the lawsuit brought by six school districts, several parents and two statewide organizations, alleging the state’s funding system is both inequitable and inadequate. While prior testimony focused largely on money available to different school districts — with discrepancies that plaintiffs contend are driven by Pennsylvania’s heavy reliance on property taxes to fund schools — Stem spent most of Tuesday describing how the state’s public school students are faring, depicting a system that institutionalizes poor outcomes.
By a number of measures, he said, students in low-income families and students of color are performing worse than their peers. Those children are concentrated in lower-wealth school districts, which require more resources to meet student needs, according to Stem.
The plaintiffs in the case contend those lower-wealth districts are disproportionately harmed by Pennsylvania’s approach to funding public education. The state has a funding formula that targets more aid to districts with weaker tax bases or needier populations of students. But it only applies to a portion of state funding, and the plaintiffs contend that the poorest districts are being shortchanged.
Breaking down standardized test scores and graduation rates by different student groups, Stem outlined the gaps. He noted that 37% of Black students, for instance, scored proficient or advanced in English language arts in 2018-19, compared to 71% of white students. He also pointed to a 15-percentage point difference in the share of Black students who graduated high school in four years (76%) in 2020, compared to white students (91%).
At another point, he confirmed that just 58 Black students in Pennsylvania had taken the AP Computer Science exam in 2015. (Stem, asked about the figure by plaintiffs’ lawyer Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, said the number was “unacceptable,” but added that the overall number of students who took the exam — 1,559 — was also too low to meet Pennsylvania’s needs.)
Pennsylvania also has gaps between Hispanic and white students, and between poor students and all students — spanning grade levels, Stem said. And the disparities are wide enough to place Pennsylvania near the bottom of states in a national measure comparing achievement gaps, he said.
The state’s education department in 2019 submitted a plan to the federal government — required under the Every Student Succeeds Act — that highlighted racial and socioeconomic gaps and committed to improving student performance, setting goals for raising scores among different groups.
Stem said it was important to “shed light on where inequities may exist” in Pennsylvania’s education system. He said the targets were achievable, “but... more resources are needed to achieve those goals.”
Stem rejected the idea that a child’s intelligence, work ethic or interest in school could be responsible for achievement gaps — factors cited previously by a lawyer for Republican House Speaker Bryan Cutler, one of the defendants, as shaping student performance.
“Does the Department of Education believe poor children have less natural intelligence than non-poor children?” Urevick-Ackelsberg asked. Stem said no — and said none of the attributes mentioned would explain differences in performance between groups of students.
Patrick Northen, the lawyer for Cutler, objected to the question, saying his comments during opening statements made “no insinuation that poor people” or other groups “are more prone to any of these individual factors.” He and lawyers for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, also a defendant, did not get a chance to cross-examine Stem on Tuesday.
The education department and Gov. Tom Wolf are also defendants in the case, but have not objected to plaintiffs’ claims that schools are insufficiently and inequitably funded.
Stem said the department believes that “for Black children, for poor children, for English learners ... funding is a very important factor for improving outcomes.” He described strategies the department had identified for boosting student achievement — from after-school programs to literacy specialists and art, music and extracurricular offerings — and said that to help poor students, the most important factors are having effective teachers, and enough teachers to provide small-group and individualized instruction.
Stem is expected to return to the witness stand Wednesday.