In a full day of proceedings, Pa. court hears closing arguments in school funding trial

Pennsylvania’s current school funding model has created a system of ‘haves and have-nots,’ one lawyer argued

By: - March 10, 2022 5:50 pm

The Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg. (Capital-Star file)

After four months of testimony, lawyers made their concluding arguments on Thursday in the landmark case that could reform how Pennsylvania pays for K-12 public education.

Attorneys summarized testimony from 40 witnesses and thousands of pages of testimony in a full day of closing remarks. Commonwealth Court Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer, who presided over the trial, is now tasked with a ruling in the case, which focuses on the General Assembly’s constitutional mandate to provide a “thorough and efficient” education system.

The statewide appellate court initially dismissed the case, filed by the Public Interest Law Center, Education Law Center, and Los Angeles-based law firm O’Melveny and Meyers, in 2015. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court revived the case in 2017.

The petitioners — six school districts, four parents, and two statewide organizations — have not requested a specific dollar amount in the case. Instead, they’ve asked the court to rule that the General Assembly enact a new way to pay for public education, a system the Republican-controlled Legislature has grappled with in the past.

Pennsylvania passed the Fair Funding Formula in 2016, which decides financial allocations across the state’s 500 school districts. The new system only applies to new funds and uses outdated population numbers. In practice, this hurts schools in the eastern half of the state, which are growing, and keeps money in western school districts, which are shrinking.

Gov. Tom Wolf and state education officials, respondents in the case, have acknowledged shortcomings in education funding but have stressed improvements in the last seven years. 

While lawyers for the highest-ranking House and Senate Republican leaders — also included in the case — have argued that the General Assembly has upheld the education clause with continued financial support to Pennsylvania schools.

‘One system for one people’

Katrina Robson, a lawyer representing the petitioners, described Pennsylvania’s current school funding model as having created a system of “haves and have-nots.” She added that education has become politicized, “subject to the push and pull” of party interests.

“To survive, districts need recurring year over year investment in education,” she told the court, using a backdrop of deteriorating buildings, overcrowded classrooms, and students learning in supply closets — images used throughout the trial.

Robson, showing pictures of cracked classroom walls, added: “This is just going to continue without intervention.” She argued that statewide standardized tests, the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment and Keystone Exams, are just one measure to show inadequate resources across petitioner districts.

The petitioning districts — William Penn, Greater Johnstown, Lancaster, Panther Valley, Shenandoah Valley, and Wilkes-Barre Area — have a lower performance rate on statewide tests and poor graduation rates, with “all but one in the bottom 50,” Robson told the court.

And students who manage to graduate from these districts “ultimately fail to make it through college in alarming numbers,” she added.

Pushing back against the arguments from their legislative opponents, Robson said they have resorted to “attacking measures” put in place by the Legislature and making “simplistic and deeply flawed comparisons” to other states. 

Robson added that attorneys for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman, R-Centre, and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, R-Lancaster, have blamed students, families, and communities for lower performance rates.

“The failures are because they were denied those opportunities to begin with,” Robson said of children in the petitioner districts. “From the very moment, they had their needs triaged as if they were walking into a field hospital instead of a kindergarten. It was the system’s failure, not theirs.”

She concluded: “One system for one people — it’s time to keep that promise.”

‘Many things can be true at once’

After campaigning on education reform, Wolf made the issue a top priority of his administration.

In court, Sophia Lee, who represents the governor, referenced increased investments in early and K-12 education under the Wolf administration, citing the implementation of the Fair Funding Formula and the Level Up program, which prioritizes funding for the state’s poorest school districts, as improvements.

Lee also cited testimony from witnesses who described poor conditions that caused some districts to close buildings and limited resources that prompted teachers to pay out-of-pocket for their supplies to make classrooms comfortable.

“This is a case about how many things can be true at once,” Lee said. “It is true that significant progress has been made … it is also unfortunately true that our schools are underfunded, that the quality of education is determined by ZIP code.”

The case, she said, asks whether the General Assembly’s education funding allocations fulfill the constitutional mandate and whether that system discriminates against students who live in “low-wealth” districts. She cited low graduation rates among students of color and said that understanding what causes educational gaps, such as poverty, can help mitigate them.

“Students should have the educational opportunity they are entitled to,” Lee said.

‘Twelve million different opinions’

In his closing remarks, Thomas DeCesar, Corman’s lawyer, told the court that every Pennsylvanian likely has an opinion on how the state pays for public education.

But ultimately, those decisions should be made by the General Assembly, whose members are elected by voters, DeCesar told the court. He added that the case isn’t about who wants students to succeed, noting that all those involved agree that they want the best outcome for K-12 kids.

“These are questions for which Pennsylvania citizens have 12 million different opinions,” he said.

If the court sets a standard to measure education funding, DeCesar argued that the judicial branch would become a “super school board” and overstep its constitutional authority.

“Simply put, Pennsylvania has a lot of different needs,” he told the court, adding that graduating with a liberal arts degree from a four-year college doesn’t work for everyone.

DeCesar argued that Pennsylvania has multiple educational opportunities, citing charter schools, intermediate units, and career and technical programs. He held up a jar full of bouncy balls, meant to symbolize all districts, and told the court that the schools in the case do not represent the entire system. 

He also showed the court a brief video tour of the Panther Valley Elementary School building. The district posted the video, which showed a facility that appeared to be in good condition.

“It isn’t professionally produced, but it certainly is a true depiction of the school,” DeCesar said, adding that previous pictures of a broken thermostat and bathroom stalls were “cherry-picked” to fit the petitioners’ case.

He also argued that the court should consider if districts are spending money effectively, listing schools that bought more expensive technology, such as iPads over Chromebooks. He also cited schools that cut staff rather than consolidate athletic programs.

He asked: Does money by itself matter, or is it the way money is used that matters?

“When you take a hard look at the petitioner districts, you see that they are not using funding in a way that maximized efficiency,” DeCesar said.

When making its assessment, DeCesar urged the court to consider growth scores as an effective way to measure education quality, noting that students in the petitioner districts are earning As, Bs, and Cs.

The decision rest with the Legislature ‘so long as the decisions they make are not unconstitutional’

The Legislature makes decisions about education funding, Patrick Northen, who represents Cutler, argued, “so long as the decisions they make are not unconstitutional.”

He added that if the people have an issue with how the Legislature has funded schools, they “hold the ultimate remedy at the ballot box.”

Repeating arguments made by DeCesar, he listed how the petitioner school districts have provided technology for students and noted their variety of course offerings and extracurricular activities. He told the court to consider “impressive graduation rates” when deciding the case.

And while standardized test results are important, Northen told the court that data, especially from tests administered during pandemic years, is limited in indicating school success or determining adequate funding.

Lawmakers, who must consider every statewide need, can realize that “simply throwing more money into the education pot is not an optimal use” of finances, Northen said. He added that more allocations don’t guarantee results.

“This court could find itself overseeing educational programming in Pennsylvania for years, if not decades,” Northern said, requesting a ruling in the legislative respondents’ favor.

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