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Marathon trial on funding for Pennsylvania schools reaches zenith

Pointing to crumbling facilities and struggling students, districts claimed in Thursday closing arguments that the Keystone State puts more education dollars in wealthier communities by relying on property taxes for funding.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Following 40 days of arguments, 41 witnesses, more than 1,100 admitted exhibits and more than 14,600 pages of trial testimony, trial summations began Thursday in a fight to reallocate billions of state dollars for education.

Initiated back in 2014 by the William Penn School District and others, the case seeks to dismantle Pennsylvania's system of using local taxes to pad the funding budgets of public schools in the state, thus allowing richer neighborhoods to spend an average of $5,000 more per student per year than what is spent in poorer districts. 

Katrina Robson, who represents the district challengers, said in her two-hour-long closing statement Thursday that the system of funding tramples the Pennsylvania Constitution, drafted in 1873, which vows to “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education.” 

A lack of substantial funding from the Republican-controlled state Legislature is to blame for school funding disparities, the O'Melveny & Myers attorney continued, painting a picture of neglected schools across that are becoming less sufficient each year with millions needed to sustain building maintenance needs and provide staff for growing student populations. 

Talking about a school that had rodents and roaches in its deteriorating school buildings, Robson recalled the testimony of one student there who said the environment made students feel “like you were less, like you didn’t matter.”

The lawyer described libraries shuttered and used for storage due to staffing shortages, and classrooms in spaces once used for storage or as hallways. Dingy bathrooms, leaking pipes or one toilet for 125 children to share. In Greater Johnstown, the state’s poorest school district, there is a middle school building in such disrepair, Robson recalled, that its students had been sent instead to an elementary school where they no longer had access to science labs.

In another rural town, Wilkes Barre, she said a rural high school is literally crumbling to the point where scaffolding at the entrance has been erected so students aren’t hit with falling debris.

Philadelphia’s school district serves some 85,000 students — more students than any other in the state — but Robson said its low salaries and poor working conditions make it hard for the city to retain or attract teachers. It also does not have sufficient funding or staff to keep up with its 300 buildings that require maintenance. Meanwhile in majority-white school districts just outside of Philly, the learning facilities are significantly nicer, with more counselors, more academic coaches, more reading specialists. Robson called it a bright red flag.

“You can't have one system of education for one set of kids or one set of schools for one set of kids, and another for the others,” said Robson, whose clients include eight school districts as well as individual parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools, and Pennsylvania’s chapter of the NAACP.

With all this evidence, she emphasized in her closing Thursday, the court has no alternative but to conclude from that the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly is failing its mission.

“Low-wealth districts do not have the resources that they need to prepare all children for college, career and civic success,” Robson said. “And why is that? Because the educational funding in Pennsylvania has become politicized, subject to the partition poll, of conflicting interests and adverse party platforms.”

Tom DeCesar of K&L Gates also spoke at closings Thursday for Senator Jake Corman, the Republican body's president pro tempore.

Holding up a vase of 100 bouncy balls before the judge, he plopped eight into a separate jar to represent the percentage of the state’s students who were represented by their school districts in this case.

“The remaining 92 balls represent the school districts that the court did not hear from,” he said, advocating that the plaintiffs’ failed to paint a comprehensive picture of what the state’s schools look like. 

“Given the diversity of districts across the commonwealth, there is no reason to believe that the testimony from petitioners is illustrative of anything about districts in Pennsylvania as a whole,” he said.

The lawyer for the Republican representative went on to say that not every student is going to excel in academics and that this is OK.

“We have a need for plumbers, police officers, electricians and IT professionals,” he said, listing careers that don’t necessarily require a college degree. “We have a need for retail workers, truck drivers and those in the hospitality industry.”

DeCesar also argued that the districts at issue may not be appropriately using the funds they’re getting, perhaps pouring money into technology like MacBooks rather than reconstructing their facilities to better fit their student populations. 

He noted that no evidence has been introduced that comprehensively documents the spending of all districts in the suit — something he said could prove they have taken all plausible cost-saving measures.  

Furthermore, he said each of the districts that is challenging the status quo has been able to meet thorough and efficient education standards, providing their students with “instruction in core subject matter areas including math, English, science, social studies, health, phys ed, foreign languages and technology.”

Robson meanwhile called the state's strategy one of "misdirection," clapping back with the argument that “the General Assembly has chosen to remain willfully ignorant to the amount of money that would be necessary to adequately fund the commonwealth’s school districts.”

“Legislative respondents have suggested that disparities in educational resources and outcomes are acceptable," Robson scoffed, "because the commonwealth needs people to — using their words — ’flip pizzas’ or ‘work at McDonald's,’ and really asked, ‘What use will those students have for algebra or biology?’”

Both parties delivered their closing statements in person at the Commonwealth Court where Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer is presiding. Although the trial in Harrisburg has not been open to the public due to Covid-19 precautions, more than 200 users livestreamed closings on YouTube.

Initially this case was shot down by the Commonwealth Court for lack of jurisdiction, but Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court, which has a 5-2 Democratic majority, resurrected the case in 2017, finding courts could determine whether the state was acting in line with its constitution. 

Judge Jubelirer is a Republican.

Arguments began in November, followed in the ensuing weeks by dozens of witnesses, including teachers, sports coaches, state education officials, education experts and members of the Republican-led Appropriations Committee of the state House to speak to budgeting decisions.

Dilworth Paxson attorney Patrick Northen represented Pennsylvania House Speaker and Republican Bryan Cutler in this case at openings. Pennsylvania’s executive branch, arguing for Democratic Governor Tom Wolf, sided with the school districts in this case.

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