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PA’s School Funding Trial Gives Snapshot of State’s Underfunded Districts

by Emily Scott, Keystone State News Connection

PA’s School Funding Trial Gives Snapshot of State’s Underfunded Districts

Pennsylvania’s school funding trial is entering its fourth week.

Testimony so far has provided an inside view into the difficult decisions educators in the state’s low-wealth districts face with minimal resources. The Education Law Center, the Public Interest Law Center and O’Melveny law firm are representing schools and parents in the case, arguing the way schools are funded in the state violates the education clause and the equal-protection provision of the state constitution.

Deborah Gordon Klehr, executive director of the Education Law Center, said testimony last week from superintendents showed when districts are underfunded, some students will be left behind when making hard financial choices.

“We heard from a school district that has 1,200 students in its elementary school, but there are only two reading specialists,” Gordon Klehr noted. “So when the state does not provide these poor school districts with adequate funding, they’re forced into making unimaginable choices.”

Pennsylvania ranks 45th for the share of K-12 school funding provided by the state. The trial continues this week with witnesses including officials from the School District of Lancaster and the deputy secretary for the state Office of Child Development and Early Learning.

Susan Spicka, executive director of Education Voters of Pennsylvania, said as a result of receiving less funding from the state, districts are expected to rely on support locally through property taxes. But she pointed out it can be a challenge, as evidenced by last week’s testimony from Greater Johnstown Superintendent Amy Arcurio, who said the most recent property tax increase led to less funding for the district than before.

“State lawmakers for years have said everything that is going on in our school districts is the result of local decision-making,” Spicka observed. “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to break this logjam in Harrisburg that has allowed the legislature to continually underfund their schools.”

Pennsylvania public schools are $4.6 billion short of a state benchmark for adequate funding, according to Penn State professor Matt Kelly, who testified in the trial in November. The trial is expected to continue through January.