5 takeaways from the ongoing Pennsylvania school funding trial after a month


Over the course of more than four weeks of testimony, the landmark trial in Pennsylvania’s school funding system challenge featured superintendents and teachers from rural, urban, and suburban communities describing cash-strapped schools – y including the William Penn District of Delaware County – struggling to meet the state’s 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-poor as they claim.

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

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

Most of the students in Nicole Miller’s Kindergarten at Evans Elementary School in the William Penn School District did not attend kindergarten. Some can’t recognize the numbers and others read, but Miller is an adult in a room with 25 students with varying needs, and can’t give the students as much attention as she wants.

Kindergarten kids have 15 minutes a day for recess – students sometimes cry it’s not long enough, but that’s what the district can provide, Miller said Tuesday. Playground equipment is limited and its students can only use the swings and slides on alternate days.

“Recess is short just because there aren’t enough staff to cover a longer period,” Miller said.

Substitute teachers are scarce in districts across the country, but the need is especially acute in low-income districts like William Penn. With Miller testifying 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 absent, so the autistic support teacher stepped in.

It is a reciprocal arrangement. Miller often absorbs other teachers’ students when they are away. On average, she has five or six students from other classes a day, forcing her to scramble lesson plans to meet the needs of all children.

Raphal “Rap” Curry, William Penn’s athletic director, knows how athletics can make a difference in the lives of students in Delaware County’s struggling school system – they made it into his. Curry, who came from a single-parent family, discovered the sport early on and got a track and field scholarship at St. Joseph’s University, giving him opportunities, he said, would not have been available otherwise.

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

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

Curry tells his students, “Wait, these opportunities are there for you, but it doesn’t feel real,” he said. “It doesn’t sound legitimate, because you know the other schools that were a few miles away have all of these things built in and you don’t.”

When interviewing the principal of a rural school district, an attorney for Pro Tempore Senate Speaker Jake Corman repeatedly asked why the state’s academic standards are important to 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 chairman 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.

“How useful would a person 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 the lawsuit was about whether Pennsylvania was fulfilling its constitutional obligation to provide a “comprehensive and effective” education system.

“The question in my mind is, thorough and effective to what end?” To meet the needs of the Commonwealth, ”said Krill. “Let’s not forget that the Commonwealth has many needs. There is a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.

READ MORE: ‘Systemic, Widespread Failure’: School funding in Pennsylvania deprives students, claimants say at start of landmark lawsuit

Margie Wakelin, an Education Law Center attorney representing the plaintiffs, then asked Splain why her district felt academic standards were important. “We obviously can’t predict what our students will be interested in,” or what careers they might pursue, Splain said, saying the standards serve as a “foundation.”

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

Splain said it would.

Defense attorneys have continued to pressure school administrators who say their districts are underfunded in their spending decisions – for example by asking the Lancaster School District Financial Director why he chose to equip the students and classrooms of Apple products, while Chromebooks were cheaper.

Matthew Przywara said the district believes Apple has an “educational focus” aligned with its goals.

Earlier, Przywara said the district was underfunded and presented some of the numbers behind that assessment: While the district hosts around 11,400 students, it has some of the largest concentrations of poor students and learners in the area. English state. Pennsylvania’s funding formula – which applies to some, but not the majority of the money it sends to school districts – places greater emphasis on students in these categories and others with needs requiring additional services.

By that calculation, Lancaster’s workforce equates to 17,400, Przywara said. Based on the district’s actual enrollment, its per-student spending is over 80% of Pennsylvania districts. Divide the expense by the number of registrations taking into account student needs, and it falls into the bottom half.

And this enrollment calculation might be underestimated, said Przywara, given that the formula does not take into account homeless students or refugees; the district has about 500 students in each category.

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

Although testimony largely focused on Pennsylvania’s K-12 system, an expert on complainants said preschool could help narrow the gap in achievement – but the state should spend more to expand access and improve performance. program quality.

Pennsylvania’s PreK Counts program – the state’s largest preschool program, open to 3- and 4-year-olds from families with incomes below 300% of the federal poverty line – spends about $ 8,200 per student , according to Steven Barnett, founding co-director of the National Institute for Early Childhood Education Research. In contrast, preschool programs in the old Abbott districts – the subject of a landmark school fundraising case from the 1980s – spend about $ 15,000 per student.

READ MORE: Governor Wolf wants full-time kindergarten in every school district in Pennsylvania. Delivering it might not be that easy.

The New Jersey programs have been successful, Barnett said. He searched for programs in the top 15 of the 31 Abbott districts and have seen lasting gains in achievement, including a 15 percentage point reduction in the number of students who withheld a mark and a 7 point reduction in special education placements.

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


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