Petitioners' final witnesses take the stand in the PA school funding trial
In January, the importance of adequate funding for quality public education--and the lack of funding faced by low-wealth districts across the commonwealth--was in the spotlight in the Pennsylvania school funding trial. As the month came to a close, petitioners called their final witnesses to the stand.

Early in the month, Jane Harbert, former superintendent of William Penn School District, testified that, although district residents pay the second highest tax rate in Pennsylvania, their funds are short $4,836 per student from state targets for adequate funding.

Education policy experts and economists emphasized two important and related points: public schools can make a difference for students in poverty, and adequate funding is an essential component of their ability to do so.

In the latter half of the month, we heard from Pennsylvania Secretary of Education Noe Ortega, one of the state officials who are respondents in the case. His testimony highlighted Pennsylvania's deep disparities in educational attainment. Ortega testified that in 2011, only 20% of Black students and 21% of Hispanic students earned a college degree within six years of high school graduation, compared to 46% of white students.

The final week of January brought the final witnesses for the petitioners to the stand. Nancy Hacker, the former superintendent of the well-funded School District of Springfield Township, testified that her district had the resources to quickly respond to the needs of her student body by hiring additional reading specialists, teachers, and guidance counselors. This is in contrast to low-wealth districts court has heard from, who are forced to respond with triage measures that, in the words of Shenandoah Valley School District superintendent Brian Waite, cause "collateral damage," as existing staff are reconfigured.

Michael Horvath, a 2019 graduate from the Wilkes-Barre Area School District and a petitioner, shared the student perspective. Horvath testified about "going to school with roaches" in middle and high school. He found himself unprepared for research when he attended college--since he was in middle school, Wilkes-Barre has had no librarians. Court also heard from Brian Costello, the superintendent of Wilkes-Barre School District, who testified about the "draconian" measures the district had to undertake to balance its budget, including cutting all K-8 art classes. "Cutting programs that you know are going to affect children is extremely difficult,” he said, “and it makes you question … ‘What are we doing?’"

Starting tomorrow, legislative leader respondents will begin to call witnesses in support of their case defending Pennsylvania's current system of school funding. Trial is expected to continue well into February.
Updates and other resources from Fund Our Schools PA
We join the fray to fight for fair congressional districts in Pennsylvania
With the legislature and the governor at an impasse over congressional districts, two consolidated cases now ask Commonwealth Court to select a fair map. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is currently considering a petition to take up the cases. Representing a group of voters who are active in support of free and fair elections, including members and leaders of Fair Districts PA, Common Cause PA, League of Women Voters PA, and others, we filed an application to intervene in the cases with pro bono co-counsel from Dechert LLP on New Year's Eve.

Our application was denied, but our clients submitted a proposed redistricting plan (or map) as amici in the case, represented by the Law Center, Common Cause, and Dechert LLP. Our redistricting plan, adhering to neutral and nonpartisan principles, ends prison gerrymandering and works to ensure that communities of interest are preserved. It is one of several under consideration by the courts.

Staff attorney Ben Geffen discussed the complex congressional redistricting process in Pennsylvania with reporters from NBC10 Philadelphia. “This is not a sleeper issue anymore," Geffen said. "That has changed a lot in the last decade." In 2018, the Law Center represented 18 Pennsylvania voters and the League of Women Voters PA in a case that successfully challenged Pennsylvania’s 2011 congressional district map as a violation of the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Former William Penn School District superintendent Jane Harbert testifies in the PA School Funding Trial
On January 6, our staff attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg led direct examination of former superintendent Jane Harbert of the William Penn School District, one of the petitioners in the case. The suburban district of around 5,000 students, 90% of whom are Black, is located in Delaware County. Harbert testified that the low-wealth district, despite taxing its residents at a high rate, faced constrained staffing and facilities in disrepair, due to a lack of available resources. "She also had a limited number of elementary school principals — one juggled two buildings — as well as counselors, who were “primarily working in crisis mode,” and psychologists, who were booked writing individualized education plans for the district’s larger-than-typical population of special education students," Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Maddie Hanna wrote. The photo shows a broken thermostat in William Penn School District’s Cypress Avenue high school campus auditorium, where Harbert testified that the heat does not work.
Law Center in the News: Catching up on testimony from leading economists and more in the Philadelphia Inquirer
The Philadelphia Inquirer summarized the final weeks of petitioners' witnesses with four key takeaways. Economists shared research showing the positive effects of increased funding for public schools on life outcomes for students, that well-funded K-12 education and quality pre-K have compounding positive effects, and the immense economic value of closing gaps in educational attainment. A former superintendent also spoke to the value of rigorous coursework and standards of proficiency for all students, no matter their future plans. ”It’s the science of learning, it’s the discipline of learning … that helps children later on in life after they graduate to make better choices for themselves,” Nancy Hacker said

For more highlights of press coverage from the start of the PA school funding trial, visit
Our staff attorney Ben Geffen weighs in on city council redistricting in Philadelphia
Our staff attorney Ben Geffen spoke with Charles Ellison of WURD’s Reality Check on Tuesday, January 25, to discuss the current Philadelphia City Council redistricting process. Although transparency and ongoing public engagement are critical to the process, Geffen noted that this years' process was lacking in both. The plan released by City Council on January 20 contained, not a map, but a proposed list of what wards would be placed within which districts. In this context, without being able to visualize district boundaries, city residents may find it difficult to understand whether or not the proposed map allows them to effectively make their voice heard. "That's not the way you do it if you wanted to maximize public involvement in the process," Geffen said. 
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