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Closing arguments in Pennsylvania school funding case set for Thursday

Sunlight shines on the Capitol dome in Harrisburg, PA, with a blue sky in the background.

The Capitol dome in Harrisburg, PA. A lawsuit over fair funding of schools is entering its final phases.

Richard T. Nowitz / Getty Images

Closing arguments are scheduled for Thursday in Pennsylvania’s school funding trial, marking the beginning of the end for a case that began in 2014. But it will likely take months if not years before there’s a final resolution in the legal battle. 

The arguments come four months after the trial started last November before Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer. The plaintiffs – six school districts, three families, and two civil rights organizations – want to overturn a longstanding system of paying for education that has resulted in some of the largest gaps in revenue between rich and poor districts in the nation. 

They want the state to spend more money on education and distribute the aid more equitably to reduce the gaps, and bring all districts up to what they are calling “adequacy.”

On average, states pay for about half the cost of their public schools, with local communities picking up most of the rest along with some help from the federal government. But Pennsylvania pays for 38% of the cost, one of the lowest percentages in the nation.

In all, the plaintiffs called 29 witnesses, including school superintendents, teachers, a student, economists, and academics who study school finance and governance. They argued that the state’s poorest school districts, both rural and urban, lack the resources to provide an education that meets Pennsylvania’s constitutional standard of providing a “thorough and efficient system of education,” at the same time that local taxpayers are overextended.

“I’m asking the state of Pennsylvania to help us. Who else is there to ask? We can’t keep asking our local taxpayers,” testified David McAndrew, the superintendent of the Panther Valley district. “I can’t ask our teachers to work for free.” 

The defendants include both the legislative and executive branches of state government.  But only the Republican lawmakers who control the General Assembly are actively contesting the case. 

Those GOP lawmakers called 10 witnesses, most of whom disputed any strong relationship between spending on schools and student outcomes. Most prominent among these was economist Eric Hanushek of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, who said such a link has never been proven. He questioned the methods used in a 2007 study that found Pennsylvania districts needed an additional $4.6 billion to give all students an adequate education. 

More recent studies that have shown a connection between spending and outcomes “are very inconsistent … in how big or how serious the relationship is,” he said.

The defendants have also emphasized the availability of school choice. Their first witness was the head of a small Christian private school in York. They also called the heads of two cyber charter schools, who emphasized that students in all school districts can enroll in cyber charters.

In one memorable moment from the trial, attorney John Krill, representing Assembly Speaker Jake Corman, asked Matthew Splain, the superintendent of the 600-student Otto Eldred district, why someone “on the McDonald’s track” should study Algebra, or why a carpenter would need to know biology. 

Citing the constitutional mandate for a system of education that “meets the needs of the Commonwealth,” Krill then said,  “The Commonwealth has many, many needs. I think there is a need for retail workers, people who know how to flip pizza crust. My point is, do these proficiency standards actually in any way imaginable serve the needs of the Commonwealth such as they should be mandatory across the board? I think the answer is no.” 

Later, under questioning from a plaintiff attorney, Splain noted that a broad education is beneficial for everyone. He used the example of basic knowledge of biology, which he said helps them make basic health decisions, such as whether to be vaccinated.

Meanwhile, plaintiffs showed the court pictures of leaking roofs and crumbling brick in aging school buildings. Witnesses described conditions in one district where 75 kindergarten students only had one nearby toilet. In another, where some students started school not knowing even how to hold a book, the district could afford only two reading specialists. At one school, children were learning in windowless closets. And a teacher described using a history book so outdated that Bill Clinton was mentioned as the president. 

“We think we’ve exposed deep flaws in Pennsylvania’s funding system, while also outlining interventions that do work,” said Deborah Gordon Klehr, the executive director of the Education Law Center, which is part of the plaintiffs’ legal team. She cited universal preschool and small class sizes among other policies. “There are supports and interventions that work but aren’t being implemented due to lack of funding,” she said. 

One witness for the plaintiffs, economist Rucker Johnson of the University of California, presented a study of states where similar school funding lawsuits were successful and resulted in year-over-year increases in per-pupil spending. For people in those states from low-income backgrounds, this study found, there were improvements on such measures as high school graduation, family income, and incarceration rates. 

“There was a reduction in poverty,” Gordon Klehr said. “We want that for Pennsylvania.” 

While the proceedings are entering their final phase, any actual changes in how schools are funded are likely years away. The closing arguments, which will be livestreamed, will set in motion a series of post-trial procedural motions and filings that will last through July 6. The timetable is set out in Jubelirer’s scheduling order.

Oral arguments on the legal issues will follow on a date still to be announced, after which Jubelirer will issue a decision. That decision could be weeks or months away. And the losing side is likely to appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Any possibility of a political solution before the case runs its course seems remote. Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has proposed a record $1.55 billion increase in state education spending for next year’s budget. But this proposal is already facing opposition from Republicans in the legislature.

Dale Mezzacappa is a senior writer for Chalkbeat Philadelphia, where she covers K-12 schools and early childhood education in the city. She is a former president of the Education Writers Association. Contact Dale at dmezzacappa@chalkbeat.org.

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