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Trial opens in Pennsylvania over school funding disparities

Six school districts allege that the failure by Pennsylvania lawmakers to equitably handle property taxes has led to unconstitutional gaps between the richest and poorest school districts in the state.

HARRISBURG, Pa. (CN) — Opening arguments began Friday in a case delayed seven years with billions of dollars and 1.7 million Pennsylvania schoolchildren hanging in the balance.

The 2014 case led by the William Penn School District hinges on a system in Pennsylvania 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. 

Katrina Robson, an attorney for the districts with the firm O'Melveny & Myers, said the 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.” She emphasized that her team would prove, over the next eight to 10 weeks of the trial, that the state’s GOP-controlled General Assembly is failing its mission.

“They are words that require more than a bare minimum. Words that require a system that serves all children, not just some,” said Robson, whose clients include the districts as well as individual parents, the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools and Pennsylvania’s chapter of the NAACP.

Representing the state, meanwhile, Dilworth Paxson attorney Patrick Northen said this wasn’t a constitutional issue, but a public policy dispute.

“The education clause does not include the term ‘uniform,’” he pointed out Friday. Although the Founders had considered it when drafting the state’s constitution, he continued, they’d ultimately decided against it, concerned it would disincentivize some districts from raising additional funds for needed items and generally bring down higher-performing schools.

Northen also argued that money is not the only instrument in boosting school achievement, noting that many factors outside the control of the public school system carry weight.

“Things like parental involvement, good nutrition and good health care, adequate housing, a safe environment, and of course, factors unique to the individual students, such as his or her own natural intelligence work ethic, and interest in school,” he said.

The attorney then argued the state isn’t bound to compensate for such short fallings with additional funding, per its constitution.

“To conclude otherwise would convert the education clause into a constitutional obligation that the state must eliminate all personal, social and economic impediments to learning,” Northen said.

Robson attempted to counter this by attempting to tie the shortfall of funding to student performance numbers. She underlined that less than 30% and 45% of students, respectively, are considered proficient by state exams in math and English. In wealthier school districts where low-income pupils are enrolled, she noted that these students still scored higher than their peers in poorer districts, with 40% of low-income students being proficient in math in wealthier schools, and less  than 25% being proficient in poorer schools.

A group of more than 100 people gathered outside of the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg on Friday, November 12, 2021, to celebrate the beginning of a court case fighting the way Pennsylvania schools are funded. (Alexandra Jones/Courthouse News Service)

Out of Pennsylvania’s 500 school districts, Robson noted, 428 fell short of $4.6 billion in funding, and that Philadelphia school district’s gap was more than $1 billion alone. 

“The cost of failing to support a thorough and efficient system of education — it's not measured in statistics. It's not measured in dollars and cents. It's measured in the lives of the children of Pennsylvania," she told the court Friday. "And that's why petitioners brought suit."

Northen offered a rebuke to local districts that he said are shirking their responsibility to help students perform. “To say that local control over fiscal matters is an illusion is just not consistent with the vast amount of control these districts have over how to spend their money,” he said. “If there are certain items like guidance counselors, librarians, support teachers, etcetera, that the district wishes it could provide, that’s simply a consequence of the tough decisions that every organization has to make.”

What’s more, he called the goals set by the Department of Education’s administered standardized tests “aggressive” and “aspirational.”

“Perhaps we can't really rely on the PSSAs as being that accurate of an indicator as to what the student has learned,” he said, using the abbreviation for a state standardized test called the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, given to students in grades three through eight.

Northern called Pennsylvania’s education system “quite good,” and emphasized that per every dollar spent out of state coffers, 35 cents goes toward public education. In addition, he touted other notable educational accomplishments for the state, including its statewide five-year cohort graduation rate of nearly 90%, and the state’s recent expansion of pre-K and career and technical education programs.

Christopher Lewis of Blank Rome is another for the state. He agreed with the districts Friday that more funding could help to bridge resource gaps between wealthy and poor student populations, blamed Covid-19 for exacerbating funding challenges, and said his clients “hope to aid the court in resolving constitutional issues.”

Robson added that wealthier districts had an easier time transitioning students to online learning models due to increased existing technology and resources. “Nonexistent computers became insurmountable barriers in 2020,” Robson said.

Both parties delivered their opening statements in person at the Commonwealth Court where Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer was presiding. Although the trial in Harrisburg was not open to the public due to Covid-19 precautions, more than 150 users livestreamed the event on Youtube as proceedings got underway.

The suit also attracted public attention when around 100 parents, teachers, students and activists, brought together by the nonprofit Children First PA, gathered on the Harrisburg Capitol’s steps at noon to advocate in support of the plaintiffs, ringing “bells for justice” and chanting in support of more funding.

Both lawyers said Friday they will be calling dozens of witnesses in the weeks to come, 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.

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

Anthony Holtzman of K&L Gates also spoke at openings Friday for Jake Corman, Pennsylvania Senate president pro tempore. Holtzman echoed Northen's conclusion that the school districts built their case “in large part on making predictions.” 

“We can all hypothesize,” Northen said, “that if instead of Lancaster School District having $22,300 per student, as it currently does, it had $50,000 per student, some students might benefit from that. But that doesn't mean the Constitution requires it.”

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