This is a summary of the openings statements heard on the first day of the PA school funding trial. For daily highlights from court each day, check out Fund Our Schools PA, our joint website with Education Law Center-PA for sharing information on the case.
November 12, 2021 – Commonwealth Court heard dramatic and conflicting opening statements on Friday in the Pennsylvania school funding case, a challenge to our state’s unconstitutional school funding system seven years in the making.
We hope you were able to follow along as it happened using the Commonwealth Court’s livestream. You can find the link to the court’s stream embedded at FundOurSchoolsPA.org/trial each day that court is in session, and you can find links posted on the Court’s website as well.
We heard many statistics that capture the reality of our state legislature’s current system for funding schools—a system of insufficient state funding, distributed inequitably and irrationally, where the students who need the most get the least, because they live in low-wealth communities.
Pennsylvania public schools are $4.6 billion short of the state’s own benchmark for adequate funding. A large majority, 59 percent, of school funding in Pennsylvania comes from local governments, resulting in stark differences in resources for public schools based on local wealth. Even the inadequate state funding we do have is distributed inequitably and irrationally, with more than 80 percent of it allocated based on demographic data from 1992, and not based on current need.
But as petitioner attorney Katrina Robson of O’Melveny said in our opening statement on behalf of the school districts, parents, and statewide associations who brought this case, this is not just a case about numbers. It’s a case about people.
People like Tara Yuricheck, a 5th grade history teacher in Panther Valley School District—a rural district serving several small towns in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. In her textbook, published in 1997, the last president listed is Bill Clinton. With more than 30 students in each class and no support personnel, it is nearly impossible to give each student the individualized attention that they need.
Ms. Yuricheck and the Panther Valley community know their students need more resources. They are making immense efforts to provide them. The taxpayers of Panther Valley pay the 10th highest rates in the state relative to wealth. But it is just not enough to make up for a lack of sufficient state funds.
It’s a case about educators like Rap Curry, the athletic director of William Penn School District. One year, the William Penn football team had the top seed, and homefield advantage, in the playoffs. But before the game, their tattered field flooded, unable to handle a snowstorm. They had to forfeit homefield advantage—and they lost their game by 2 points, on a wealthier school district’s field.
It’s a case about school leaders like Superintendent Amy Arcurio of Greater Johnstown, who knows that 50 percent of first graders in her district need the highest level of reading intervention. She also knows that she does not have the funding to provide the staff or the space for anything close to that number of students. Instead, she triages. The few students who are able to receive reading interventions are pulled out of class to be taught in a supply closet. Space is at a premium, after the district consolidated its two elementary schools into one building in an effort to avoid bankruptcy.
“The disparities in funding between high-wealth and low-wealth districts, that’s not just numbers on paper,” Robson said. “That’s children, hundreds of thousands of them.”
“The disparities in funding between high-wealth and low-wealth districts, that’s not just numbers on paper. That’s children, hundreds of thousands of them.”
What is the solution? Substantial increased state funding for public education, distributed equitably, so that local wealth does not determine whether or not Pennsylvania students receive a quality public education.
The gaps in academic performance between wealthy and poor schools are significant. The Pennsylvania Department of Education in 2019 reported some of the largest reading achievement gaps in the country between low-income students and students of color versus their white, more affluent peers.
But as Robson shared in our opening statement, there is evidence from Pennsylvania that funding would make a difference. In math, over 40% of economically disadvantaged students in the wealthiest school districts scored proficient or better. In the poorest school districts, only about 25% did. Resources will make a difference for students—and only more state funding can close the gap between districts where there are wide disparities in local wealth.
On November 12, 1872—149 years ago today—delegates came together to begin to write what became the 1874 Pennsylvania state constitution. That constitution enshrined a constitutional right to a “thorough and efficient system of public education.”
Now, school districts and parents are in court seeking an order declaring that the current system of school funding does not meet that standard, and that the state legislature, the Governor, the Department of Education and the State Board of Education must create and maintain a new system that does. Our current funding system discriminates against students in low-wealth districts, leaving them so far behind that it violates the Pennsylvania constitution’s equal protection provisions.
We also heard from the executive respondents in the case, Governor Tom Wolf and the Pennsylvania Department of Education. “One of the reasons there are gaps in student achievement is because of gaps in resources that exist in many of their schools,” Christopher Lewis, attorney for the executive respondents, said.
And we heard from legislative leaders who are defending the current funding system. Their attorneys claimed that low-wealth school districts in Pennsylvania already provide enough to give their students an opportunity to access an adequate education, and gaps in resources between low and high-wealth districts are justified by the need for local control.
“The fact that some students are better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that are offered, or perhaps are more industrious,” Patrick Northen, attorney for Speaker Cutler, said in his opening statement, “doesn’t negate the fact that the opportunity exists.”
Robson was clear in her opening statement that students and educators are sometimes able to achieve in underfunded public schools, despite the odds, and that petitioners celebrate those successes.
“That these dedicated professionals are able, sometimes, to overcome inadequate funding and offer advanced classes, or induct a student into an honor society, or after decades of crumbling roofs and walls finally save enough money for a new building…that makes them heroes,” Robson said. “It does not make the schools adequately funded.”
We are confident that during trial, the unacceptable and unconstitutional reality of our school funding system—and our state legislature’s responsibility to fix it—will be impossible to ignore.
Starting next week, experts, school leaders, and educators will begin to take the stand and share their experience with our school funding system. We plan to call the following witnesses next week:
- David McAndrew, Panther Valley School District Superintendent
- Tara Yuricheck, Panther Valley School District 5th grade history teacher
- Dr. Matthew Kelly, Penn State professor
- Derek Black, University of South Carolina Law School professor
- Karen Molchanow, Executive Director of the PA State Board of Education
After next week, Court will be closed for the week of Thanksgiving. Testimony will begin again on Monday, November 29.
We hope you will continue to follow the case, and continue to demand that our leaders in Harrisburg live up to their constitutional responsibility to ensure that all students—regardless of their community’s wealth, their race, their ability, or the language they speak at home—can receive the quality public education they need to prepare for life in the 21st century.