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‘A System that Strands Children’: After Months of Testimony, Historic Pennsylvania School Funding Trial Comes to a Close — With Huge Consequences for Low-Income Kids

A mural in Greater Johnstown School District’s former middle school facility that was closed in 2017 when deteriorating conditions were deemed unsafe for students. The ceiling was damaged by leaky pipes. (The Public Interest Law Center)

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Correction appended

Students learning in storage closets. Cockroach-infested campuses without heat, reading specialists or updated textbooks. Learning facilities in such disrepair they’ve become dangerous. 

“A system that strands children capable of learning in districts that lack the resources necessary to teach them cannot be considered thorough and efficient,” attorney Katrina Robson said during closing arguments Thursday in a high-profile legal battle in Commonwealth Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Robson is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs in a historic school funding trial that has stretched over four months and involved more than 40 witnesses. Thousands of low-income students have been trapped in districts that produce poor academic achievement, preventing them from success in college and life, she argued, despite a more than 150-year-old mandate in the state Constitution requiring Pennsylvania to provide a “thorough and efficient” education system.

Attorneys for the defendants, including Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler, both Republicans, maintained that state lawmakers have met their constitutional obligations and that the six school districts, three families and two Pennsylvania advocacy groups suing the state failed to prove the funding scheme ran counter to the constitution. Ultimately, lawmakers have upheld their duty to provide an “adequate education” because public schools are now available to students in “every nook and cranny” of the state, said Patrick Northen, Cutler’s attorney. 

“Today, in 2022, Pennsylvania has a vast system of public schools that provides all kids in every part of the commonwealth an opportunity to get a free education,” he said. “Compare what exists today versus the 1870s, before the education clause was enacted, when kids in rural areas were deprived of any public education.”

At issue is Pennsylvania’s state funding system that relies heavily on local property taxes, a system the plaintiffs — including the Pennsylvania Association of Rural and Small Schools — charge also violates the state constitution’s equal protection clause by providing less money to schools in areas with low property values and less personal wealth. Pennsylvania ranks 45th in the country in the percentage of education costs the state picks up versus what falls on local districts and some districts tax their residents at far higher rates than their more affluent neighbors only to raise less money. 

The closely watched case, filed eight years ago, could ultimately spur huge changes for Pennsylvania students if Judge Renée Cohn Jubelirer rules the current funding scheme is unconstitutional and requires one that sends more state tax money to low-income schools. However, she isn’t expected to render a decision until this summer, and an appeal to the state Supreme Court is expected no matter which side prevails.

Defendant lawmakers have argued that the legislature maintains authority over school funding and it’s not the role of the court to act like a “super school board.” Robson said children in low-income districts have been relegated to crowded, rotting and under-resourced schools precisely because state school funding “has become a victim of politics.”

Similar to Pennsylvania, state constitutions nationally grant children the right to a public education, but as former U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote in a recent op-ed, they don’t promise a “great one.” In multiple states, including New Mexico and Minnesota, advocates are campaigning to change that by enshrining the right to a high-quality education in their state constitutions. 

The Pennsylvania trial is one in a long run of similar school funding equity litigation that has found varying degrees of success, including in neighboring states like New Jersey and New York. The most recent high-profile example unfolded in Connecticut, where in 2016 lawmakers were ordered to completely reconfigure the state’s school funding system only to have the state Supreme Court overturn the lower-court ruling two years later.

In the Pennsylvania case, defendants’ attorneys pointed to Connecticut as a path forward. Northen said the Connecticut Supreme Court was “sympathetic to the plight of struggling students,” but it’s not the role of courts to create education policy or to solve the societal problems that children bring to school. Poor scores on standardized tests, he continued, are not the result of underfunded schools, but of how factors like poverty affect cognitive development and academic performance. 

The state education department and Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, are also defendants in the lawsuit but have not fought to counter plaintiffs’ claims. In fact, Wolf proposed an additional $1.5 billion for K-12 schools in his latest budget proposal. Wolf’s attorney, Sophia Lee, contradicted co-defendants’ position in her closing argument Thursday. With proper resources, she said, schools can support students to the point of alleviating the conditions they bring to school, including the effects of poverty and trauma.

Though “significant progress has been made” under Wolf’s leadership, Lee said it remains “unfortunately true that our schools are underfunded, that the quality of education is determined by zip code and that historical investments in education aren’t equitably allocated.” 

A growing body of research supports the notion that increased school spending leads to better educational outcomes for students. 

But other defendants questioned whether the plaintiff districts had spent their limited resources responsibly and noted that many of the deteriorating building conditions used to illustrate their plight had since been fixed. One district, Greater Johnstown, recently upgraded the lights in its football stadium and another, Panther Valley, offers a course in broadcast journalism. 

“No one has actually looked at how the funding is spent by petitioner districts,” said attorney Thomas DeCesar, who represents Corman. “You see, they are not using funding in a way that maximizes efficiency and directs money to the programs they claim they need.”

Along with casting doubt that additional money would result in better educational outcomes, DeCesar noted the constitution requires an education system that “meets the needs of the commonwealth” and that not all jobs depend on a college education. The state needs police officers, IT professionals, retail workers and truck drivers, he said.

“Just because a job doesn’t require a college degree doesn’t make the job less honorable or important,” he said. 

DeCesar’s argument resembles one made during the trial, when GOP attorney John Krill asked “What use would someone on the McDonald’s career track have for Algebra 1?” 

“Lest we forget the commonwealth has many needs,” Krill continued. “There’s a need for retail workers, for people who know how to flip a pizza crust.” 

It’s this argument that Robson, the plaintiffs’ attorney, said was particularly egregious. Such comments, she said, make “a mockery of the education clause” in the state constitution that was meant to “ensure there would not be a two-tiered system of education” in Pennsylvania.

Correction: The Greater Johnstown School District upgraded its football stadium lights. An earlier version of this story misidentified the district.

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