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Philly kids are falling through the cracks, superintendent says, putting blame on state funding

In a monthslong trial with billions of dollars and 1.7 million Pennsylvania school children hanging in the balance, the superintendent of Philadelphia schools testified Tuesday that his district needs more funding for college and career readiness.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Pennsylvania's system of letting schools draw a substantial amount of their funding through tax dollars leaves Philadelphia students unprepared for entering the workforce or secondary education, the superintendent of the state's largest school district said Tuesday.

Dr. William Hite, who is nearly 10 years into a role as superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia, took the stand Tuesday in a long-running case against the state. During this time, Hite said, his job has been “trying to educate children without the sufficient resources and supports that are needed.” 

The superintendent stressed that his district of roughly 200,000 students consistently scores lower than the state average on state standardized tests called Keystones and PSSAs, short for Pennsylvania System of School Assessment.

Just three miles outside of Philadelphia in the richer Philly suburbs, meanwhile, Lower Merion, with an 80% white student base, consistently scores in the 80th and 90th percentiles on standardized tests.

Philadelphia’s school district, with a base made up of roughly 65% either Black, Asian, Hispanic and mixed students, has significantly lower standardized test scores.

The superintendent maintained on the stand that this was not because of the percentage of well-off students in the suburban school. At questioning Tuesday, Hite compared statistics of economically disadvantaged students at one of 57 of Philadelphia’s high schools, Overbrook High School, to Lower Merion’s disadvantaged students by the percent of those who scored proficient or advanced on the Keystone exams. 

The comparison was staggering: At Lower Merion 80.6% of the economically disadvantaged students scored proficient or advanced while 2.4% of the economically disadvantaged students at Overbrook High School scored in the same category.

“If you look just at the economically disadvantaged differences on these two charts, it's a clear indication in my opinion that, when there's an investment of more resources, even the economically disadvantaged children do better,” Hite said.

He pressed that the school district needed more funding for additional staff to achieve this level of proficiency.

Across the state, the superintendent emphasized, the discrepancies starts early.

“In Math, our fourth graders score 17.9% proficient versus the statewide percentage at 46.2%, and in English, language arts and literature our fourth graders score 35% proficient or advanced compared to 63.6% at the state level,” Hite said.

To fix this, he pressed, would require more staff — “staff that is well before the high school years to provide young people with the ability to establish a foundation, particularly in reading and math, and then at ensuring that those young people have support throughout their educational experience and the support structures that are consistent with a district like Lower Merion,” Hite added.

“More counselors, more academic coaches, more reading specialists — those types of positions do matter," the superintendent continued. "And we would need a lot more of those in the School District of Philadelphia.”

Hite said on the stand Tuesday that students at both schools were aware of the discrepancies and had advocated together to draw attention to the discrepancies with a march from one school to another. The students wanted “to advocate for more funding to provide the young people at Overbrook with many of the opportunities that children enjoy in Lower Merion,” Hite said.

Hite also hit on other issues with his school district, such as a lack of available funds to keep school buidlings up to code, provide 21st century science labs, fucntioning libraries, reading specialists and a sufficient number of repair sites for the 100,000 Chromebooks purchased and handed out to some students for online learning during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The switch to online learning during Covid-19 has had disproportionate effects, he said, on the significant number of students who are English language learners, living in poverty or have disabilities. Hite also spoke about having witnessed the toll on students across the district as they deal with mental health challenges as a result of the online shift.

“The impacts on the children that I have observed personally are anxiety, depression, the feeling of isolation,” Hite listed. He said young learners up to high school students indicated this was the case, and that the school district is using Covid-19 relief funds to provide more counselors and behavioral health services in schools. When the funding dries up, however, it will have to cut back on staff.

Hite will not be the superintendent of Philadelphia’s school district next year but said he testified in this case because he doesn’t want whoever fills his role to have to deal with the same problems he faced, working with limited resources.

“Many of our young people, they come to school every day and they do everything that we've asked we asked them to do. They complete the coursework. They attend the number of days. They are in our system, kindergarten through 12th grade. And in many cases, they are really meeting a minimum standard because that's all they have access to,” Hite said. “We think that with additional supports, with additional resources, with additional individuals, teachers who can coach and who can provide structures and services and supports for students, that children would fare much better academically.”

In the last two months, numerous educators, administrators, and education officials from across the state have taken the stand during arguments to rail against Pennsylvania’s school funding system where local taxes make up more than half of all funding for 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. 

The 2014 case led by the William Penn School District began in November. Billions of dollars and 1.7 million Pennsylvania school children hang in the balance.

An attorney for William Penn did not identify herself during virtual, livestreamed arguments Tuesday.

Katrina Robson, an attorney for the districts with the firm O'Melveny & Myers, had opened the case in November, saying the state’s system 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.” 

Representing Republican state representatives, meanwhile, Dilworth Paxson attorney Patrick Northen has maintained the funding at issue isn’t a constitutional issue, but a public policy dispute.

Both parties were present in person Tuesday at the Commonwealth Court where Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer was presiding. The trial in Harrisburg has not been open to the public due to Covid-19 precautions.

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