At issue in the lawsuit is how the General Assembly distributes funding to the 500 school districts around the state. Spotlight Pennsylvania notes that Pennsylvania ranks near the bottom when it comes to the percentage of funding school districts receive from the state government. Instead, school districts are more reliant on taxpayers, meaning districts in richer areas consistently raise more money for schools than in poorer districts. An analysis of those disparities found that school districts like Panther Valley, which ranks toward the bottom of the list of most equitable districts in the state at 456, has significantly less to spend on students than schools at the top of the list, like Gettysburg Area.
Panther Valley, which is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit, can devote $11,626 per student and households in the area tend to have an average income of $40,825, according to a WalletHub analysis. Gettysburg Area, which ranks all the way at the top, devotes $15,336 per student and households tend to have an average income of $64,476. The disparity is striking when taking into account success metrics like graduation rate. Gettysburg Area ranks in the top 30% in the state while Panther Valley is in the bottom 50%, according to the metrics service Public School Review.
After the suit was filed in Nov. 2014, the Commonwealth Court heard oral arguments in March 2015. The court ultimately dismissed the lawsuit a month later, claiming it was up to the General Assembly to implement school funding practices and shouldn’t be at the discretion of the court. In May 2015, the ruling was appealed to the State Supreme Court. Between the introduction of the lawsuit and a final decision rendered by the Supreme Court, Pennsylvania overhauled its school funding system. A Basic Education Funding Commission was established in 2014, their plan was unveiled in 2015, and a new funding formula was implemented in 2016. In 2017, the Supreme Court ruled that the Commonwealth Court must hear William Penn School District, et al vs. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al.
Writing in his majority opinion in Sept. 2017, Justice David N. Wecht noted that “judicial review stands as a bulwark against unconstitutional or otherwise illegal actions by the two political branches. It is fair neither to the people of the Commonwealth nor the General Assembly itself to expect that body to police its own fulfillment of its constitutional mandate.” Just three months later, Gov. Tom Wolf wrote a briefing requesting that the case be expedited. Oral arguments began in March 2018 and saw attorney Brad Elias single out the inadequacies of a new school funding system being adopted but not implemented. According to Elias, who argued on behalf of the plaintiffs, the new formula has been used for just 2% of Pennsylvania schools.
Respondents like Joseph B. Scarnati III, who was then the President Pro-Tempore of the Pennsylvania Senate, filed preliminary objections that were subsequently overruled in May 2018 by the Commonwealth Court. The court overruled Scarnati’s demand that the case be rendered moot over what he deemed to be insufficient facts showing disparities between school systems, claiming that the plaintiffs had provided more than enough information already. Scarnati also argued that the adoption of the 2016 overhaul rendered the lawsuit moot, which the Commonwealth Court also did not agree with. In fact, over the course of the case dragging on from when the lawsuit was filed in 2014 to when the trial commenced Nov. 12 of this year, researchers have found that the funding gap has consistently widened over the past few years.
In 2014, Pennsylvania ranked in the bottom two when it comes to disparities between funding the richest and poorest districts, according to The Education Trust. Research from Children First PA reveals the state continues to rank as one of the lowest in the country when it comes to funding disparities in school districts. According to another paper published this year by Children First PA, “the state gives $925 million less to high poverty growing districts than it would if funding was distributed based on current enrollment levels and student and district need factors.” Much of this has to do with Pennsylvania’s 1990 “hold harmless” policy, which prevents districts from receiving less funding than the year prior—regardless of fewer students being enrolled or other factors being taken into account. The paper also points to inadequacies in the 2016 funding formula, which has only been used for new funding, thereby not impacting a substantial portion of school districts, which still adhere to the “hold harmless” funding method.
Even Wolf admitted that Pennsylvania falls short of adequately funding its school districts. In a brief filed by his lawyers Wolf acknowledged that “the work to increase funding for public schools is not over.” “Gov. Wolf strongly believes in the need for increased funding for Pennsylvania public schools and continues to fight for additional appropriations for public education,” the brief noted. Earlier this year, Wolf proposed a boost of $1.55 billion to school funding, but what was adopted amounted to an increase of $272,284,000 in education funding for the 2022 budget—a rise of 4% compared with the prior year. Funding practices are clearly still an issue and, after a bit of back-and-forth on scheduling, the William Penn School District, et al vs. Pennsylvania Department of Education, et al trial began just a few weeks ago. As the Philadelphia Inquirer details, much of the first week was spent on a combination of expert testimony and educators impacted by the funding disparities.
Panther Valley fifth-grade history teacher Tara Yuricheck testified that her school lacked enough textbooks for students and that the ones they have date back to 1997. She lamented that she felt like she couldn’t reach students in her largest class of 34 students. Panther Valley Superintendent David McAndrew also decried the large class sizes that made it difficult to adequately teach the district’s students. He said it was impossible to provide students with computers during lockdown until COVID-19 relief funds were made available. McAndrew added that taxpayers were being stretched to the brink and, despite relief money, were still paying exorbitantly high taxes to fund a district that continues being forced to make cuts, putting its students’ education in jeopardy. “It shouldn’t be what zip code you live in, if you’re going to be successful or not. That’s where we are right now, and it’s not fair,” McAndrew said.
The second week of testimony saw Matthew Stem, the former deputy secretary for elementary and secondary education for the Pennsylvania Department of Education, take the stand for multiple days. Stem made a direct connection between achievement gaps and race, noting that 37% of Black students receive proficient scores on state English tests while 71% of white students score proficient. This goes against the talking point many Republican lawmakers have used in tying the case solely to finances. During week one of the trial, lawyer Patrick Northen, who represents House Speaker Bryan Cutler, claimed that “this is a case about wealth and not a case about race or ethnicity.” Weeks three and four of the trial saw additional plaintiffs push back against Cutler’s assessment.
Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio, whose school district is also a plaintiff, noted that 70% of the kindergarten students enrolled in her district lack basic skills, in part because the district cannot afford pre-K for all students. She said 80% of the students need intensive intervention by first grade—another thing the district simply can’t afford. Arcurio, who spoke for three days during week three of the trial, serves a district that has a minority enrollment of 53% and is considered one of the most economically segregated in the country. Dr. Steven Barnett, who founded and co-directs Rutgers’ National Institute for Early Education Research, testified during week four of the trial that preschool programs can benefit students long after they’ve entered Kindergarten, especially those living in poverty.
Those gains are lessened if students receive fewer resources as they progress through school, however. Chalkbeat found that more than half of Pennsylvanians are unable to access public preschools. Republicans, in their infinite wisdom, argued that Dr. Barnett’s point makes it clear that Pennsylvania shouldn’t even bother with preschools to begin with if students are destined to fail due to lack of resources. At one point, an attorney for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman asked why students would even need required courses like math and science in the first place. “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1,” lawyer John Krill argued during week four proceedings. He then went even further in his musings: “The question in my mind is, thorough and efficient to what end? To serve the needs of the Commonwealth. Lest we forget, the Commonwealth has many needs,” Krill said. “There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.”
It’s a bleak way to make a case and will likely only continue as the trial reaches its eventual conclusion, which is expected in another four to six weeks. A schedule of upcoming court dates can be found on the Unified Judicial System of Pennsylvania website. Proceedings on Jan. 3 will be livestreamed on YouTube.