School Funding

Pennsylvania school fundraising lawsuit comes to an end

Responding to Commonwealth Needs

In his closing argument, DeCesar pointed out that the education clause in the state constitution calls for an education system that is not only “comprehensive and effective” but “responsive to the needs of the Commonwealth.”

“Education is not the Commonwealth’s only need,” he said. “The General Assembly has more duties” – and financial responsibilities – “than simply creating a system of public education”.

DeCesar also said one of the Commonwealth’s needs is “a wide range of people who are ready and willing to do a wide range of work”, making one of the most controversial points in the case.

Earlier in the lawsuit, another of Corman’s attorneys questioned the state’s academic standards, asking why students on the “McDonald’s career track” would need to learn algebra, and stating that the Commonwealth needs “people who know how to flip the pizza crust.”

The petitioner’s attorney Katrina Robson addressed the moment in her closing argument.

“According to legislative sponsors, an education system which leaves these children incompetent on basic standards still meets the needs of the Commonwealth and is therefore rational,” she said, adding that the suggestion “mocks the clause Education” in the state constitution, which sought to ensure that there would not be a “two-tier system of education in the Commonwealth”.

But DeCesar doubled down on the argument during his closing statement.

“Put simply, Pennsylvania has many different needs, and earning a liberal arts degree from a four-year college isn’t the right fit for everyone,” he said. , criticizing the petitioners’ focus on college graduation rates as a measure of student achievement.

“We need citizens to look to trades and different industries,” DeCesar said. “We need plumbers, policemen, electricians and IT professionals. We need retail workers, truck drivers and those in the hospitality industry, just as we need teachers, nurses and computer engineers.

“It was a system failure”

The defendants also questioned whether more money would improve student outcomes and whether districts are spending the money wisely.

“In this case, no one has analyzed how the money is spent by school districts in Pennsylvania,” DeCesar said, arguing that the requesting districts “are not using their funding in a way that maximizes efficiency.” .

The Lancaster School District, for example, purchased iPads for its students rather than cheaper Chromebooks. Greater Johnstown recently spent $400,000 on new lights for its football stadium, and Panther Valley used federal pandemic relief funds to, among other things, add new high school classes, including broadcast journalism and “Monsters and Literature.”

“There is no requirement in the Pennsylvania constitution that school districts provide opportunities in broadcast journalism,” DeCesar said.

Earlier in the trial, defense attorneys pointed to course offerings like “Monsters and Literature” as evidence that the districts provided students with a wide range of learning opportunities, which Robson disputed during his closing argument. final.

“The catastrophic failures of this system are not because children look at lesson guides and aren’t smart enough or industrious enough to seize opportunities,” she said. “The failures are due to the fact that they were denied these opportunities initially, from the very moment their needs were sorted as if they were going to a field hospital instead of a kindergarten . It was a systems failure, not theirs.

She also took issue with the defense’s argument at the start of the trial that one of the causes of these catastrophic failures is “innate differences in children – that some children have more natural intelligence or a better work ethic, and that some children are more industrious or better equipped to take advantage of the opportunities available to you. »

Robson laid out some of the dire statistics about low-income children of color and college students across the state — who the petitioners say are disproportionately affected by funding shortfalls.

In any given year, she said, 75% of Latino children will fail to master math and 80% of low-income black and Latino graduates will fail to earn a college degree. The number of black students taking the AP Computer Science exam could fit in the courtroom, she said, referring to testimony that only 58 black students across the Commonwealth took the test in 2015.

Black, Latino and low-income children have the same natural intelligence and work ethic as their peers, Robson said; the problem isn’t that they aren’t smart or industrious enough to seize opportunities, it’s that they don’t have access to those opportunities.

“To suggest that this disaster is due to children ignoring opportunity allows us to lay the blame for the failure on their feet rather than those of the General Assembly, all to constitutionally bless a system where large swaths of students are failing and where particular groups of historically underserved students bear the brunt,” Robson said.

“Many things can be true at once”

Governor Tom Wolf is also a defendant in the case, but largely stepped back during the trial and did not dispute the petitioners’ claims.

Wolf, who inherited the lawsuit when he took office in 2015, has been a strong supporter of increased funding for schools. His most recent budget proposal calls for record investment in education.

Sophia Lee, an attorney representing Wolf, said the testimony of the plaintiffs’ witnesses “about the conditions of the schools and the quality of the educational experiences is credible and should be given credit by the court.”

These school conditions are why the Wolf administration has worked hard to sue the General Assembly to both provide more funding to schools and distribute that money more fairly, Lee said, adding that the case involves about “how many things can be true at once.”

It is true that since the filing of the complaint, “significant progress has been made”, she said. “It is also sadly true that our schools are underfunded, that the quality of public education is determined by postcode, and that while historic investments in education have increased, those investments are not all distributed evenly. , nor does it translate to a bigger pie for the tuition dollars.

The historic investments are needed to offset historic cuts to education made before Wolf took office, as well as rising pension costs and inflation, she said.

“What the court must determine is whether all of the significant accomplishments, when accompanied by unfortunate truths, are sufficient to meet the constitutional standard,” Lee said.