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CHALKBEAT.ORG: Pennsylvania School System Funding On Trial

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Pennsylvania’s school funding system has been on trial for the last few months. The case has offered two competing visions of how to improve the education of disadvantaged students.

The plaintiffs — including six school districts and three families — argued that the state has put them at a disadvantage. Their witnesses testified about painful budget cuts and a raft of new research concluding that more money tends to improve schools. 

“It’s a case about people, about children struggling to overcome circumstances they can’t control,” one attorney said during opening statements.

The defendants — the Republican leaders of the statehouse and senate — have pointed to Pennsylvania’s high overall education spending, questioned the relationship between money and academic outcomes, emphasized the state’s school choice programs, and said it’s not the court’s job to fix all that is wrong with schools.

This case, a defense attorney said, is only about “whether the system that currently exists is so defective it reaches the point of being unconstitutional.”

The defense’s case has been eventful. One witness was withdrawn after allegations of plagiarism. A defense attorney also suggested that some students don’t need to attain academic proficiency “because there is a need for retail workers, people who know how to flip pizza crust.”

The Pennsylvania suit is the latest in a long line of lawsuits challenging how a state funds schools, and similar cases are percolating in Tennessee and North Carolina. But this case could serve as a test of how courts will weigh some new factors: growing student need because of the pandemic, school budgets flush with temporary federal cash and the recent school funding research.

The trial is coming to a close. But don’t expect a quick resolution: the losing side is expected to appeal.