As Republican Legislative leaders defend Pennsylvania against a historic lawsuit challenging the school funding system, this week they summoned a school funding expert who characterized the state as both in line with peers and increasing spending on education nationwide.
Jason Willis, a director of the California-based educational research group WestEd, which advises states and school systems on school funding issues, denied the allegations in the lawsuit, which was brought by six school districts, two statewide groups and several parents, which challenged Pennsylvania’s method of funding public education Education claimed is so inappropriate and unjust that it violates the state constitution.
He also contradicted some of the findings of one of the petitioners’ experts, Matthew Kelly, an assistant professor at Pennsylvania State University, who calculated that the poorest 20% of Pennsylvania school districts spend thousands of dollars less per student than the wealthiest 20%, even though the student is better off is needs.
Willis said he disagreed with how Kelly categorized and compared the state’s 500 districts and disagreed with Kelly’s analysis, which shows that some areas of state spending on education have declined in real dollars.
Testimony on Thursday and Friday, nearly three months into the landmark trial, was part of the second week of witnesses subpoenaed by attorneys for Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman and House Speaker Bryan Cutler.
It was dismissed by plaintiff attorneys who questioned Willis about his methodology.
For example, a group of eight peer states for Pennsylvania included Delaware, New York, Arkansas, and Texas, but not neighboring New Jersey. Willis said that was based on New Jersey’s “high urban population.”
Finally on that how School districts spend on money matters — and not just funding levels — and that some are “more efficient and effective” than others, Willis produced charts comparing petitioners’ districts to others in Pennsylvania that his firm identified as equivalent, and their spending per student compared to their students’ academic growth scores.
Among a group of 20 colleagues for the Lancaster School District were the urban district of Harrisburg and the suburbs of Radnor and Jenkintown.
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg, an attorney for plaintiffs, found that more than 90% of Lancaster’s nearly 11,000 students are economically disadvantaged, the seventh-highest proportion among the state’s 500 districts — compared to Jenkintown at 468 with 730 students and Radnor. 488..
“They thought it fair to compare one of the largest and poorest counties in the Commonwealth with one of the smallest and most prosperous counties,” he said. Willis said looking at the entire peer group provides a “reasonable and fair comparison.”
» READ MORE: Lancaster schools are spending above the national average. But poor students need a lot more, the superintendent testified at a historic funding process.
Urevick-Ackelsberg also questioned Willis about his per-student spending calculations. For example, his report stated that Chester Upland spends $36,000 per student; The Pennsylvania Department of Education reported that the district spent around $17,000 in the same years Willis was considering.
Willis said his numbers have been adjusted for “regional costs,” but Urevick-Ackelsberg questioned whether it had failed to properly account for charter schools funded by school districts. Counting a district’s spending on charters but not the students attending them would inflate spending per student for districts with a sizable charter population — including many of Pennsylvania’s poorest, Urevick-Ackelsberg said.
Willis said he doesn’t know if he includes charter students in the calculations.
Looking at Pennsylvania at large, Willis said he disagrees with the lawsuit’s characterization that the state’s funding system is “irrational and unfair” and that counties are “drastically underfunded.”
Recent actions by the state “would suggest that they aim to address problems of unequal distribution of school funding,” Willis said, including a funding formula passed in 2016 that directs more money to poorer districts with more vulnerable groups of students, including English learners and people, who live in poverty.
Still, the new method only applies to a fraction of its main public school subsidy — which plaintiffs say was not enough to address inequalities in the poorest counties, which can’t raise as much money as wealthier communities in a state that prides itself on it relies heavily on local taxes to fund public education.
Willis said Pennsylvania compares favorably to many other states on the level and effort involved in funding education — a measure of how much money is being spent relative to the resources available — and the equitable distribution of aid.
He cited reports from Education Week and the Education Law Center in New Jersey that graded states on their school finance systems. (The Education Law Center in Pennsylvania is one of the groups representing the plaintiffs.)
But while Willis found that the Justice Center gave Pennsylvania an “A” for its level of funding and efforts, his analysis omitted that the same report gave the state an “F” for justice, Urevick-Ackelsberg said.
Earlier in the week, Mark Ornstein, a former CEO of Michigan’s charter network and administrator of the Delaware County Intermediate Unit and Philadelphia School District, was abruptly withdrawn as a witness for lawmakers after his expert report uncovered multiple instances of apparent plagiarism.
An attorney for Corman asked that Ornstein be qualified as an expert witness, but the petitioners’ attorneys rejected Ornstein’s qualification as an expert witness and asked Ornstein if students at University Prep, the founding network he oversees, would fail if they plagiarized academic material.
“It’s hard to say,” Ornstein said.
Dan Cantor, the attorney, presented several sections of Ornstein’s report that appeared to be identical or virtually identical to texts written by education professors and a Penn State sophomore, citing “massive plagiarism.”
When asked about a section that seemed almost indistinguishable from the Penn State student’s information, Ornstein said, “I don’t know. I do not remember. There were a lot of articles, a lot of quotes, and I can’t say exactly what I got from what.”
To begin their defense, lawmakers called an English education expert to argue that low standardized test scores among students who are not fluent in English do not reflect whether they are receiving an adequate education.
Christine Rossell, a professor emeritus at Boston University who helped draft a now-repealed law banning bilingual education in California, dismissed the role of standardized tests in measuring the broader quality of education — saying the tests are like that designed to produce a bell curve Half of the students score above the curve and half below it.
For English learners, “it’s even worse,” she said. “Unlike other students — Black or Hispanic students, if their score goes up, they’re still Black or Hispanic.” But English learners whose scores improve are no longer considered English learners, she said, “so the group is always composed people with low scores.”
Under the cross-examination, Rossell-recognized states can continue to consider students as learners of English for up to two years after they have mastered the language.