Defense intervenes in Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit

An “irrational and inequitable” financing system?

At the heart of the lawsuit, filed in 2014, is a fundamental question: Is Pennsylvania underfunding public education so badly that it violates the state constitution?

The plaintiffs, which include six school districts, several parents and two statewide organizations, argue that the current funding system is both inadequate and unfair.

Defense attorneys tried to whittle that argument down by calling Jason Willis to his feet.

Willis is director of the California-based education research group, WestEd.

He said Pennsylvania “compares favorably to many other states” in terms of the level of funding and effort, i.e. the amount of money it invests in public K- 12 as a percentage of the state’s economic capacity. WIllis argued that Pennsylvania’s overall level of funding “is generally one of the highest in the country.”

The Commonwealth also compares favorably to other states when it comes to fair distribution of resources, Willis said, while adding there was room to grow.

Willis testified that the state has taken steps to address “problems of inequitable distribution of school funding,” including an equitable funding formula that gives additional leverage and funds to less affluent and needy districts.

(The plaintiffs pointed out that the formula, which went into effect in 2016, only applies to a fraction of the state’s education budget and argued that it did not do enough to close significant spending gaps between districts.)

As part of his analysis, Willis relied on reports from Education Week and the New Jersey Education Law Center that rate states on their school funding systems.

During cross-examination, the petitioner’s attorney Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg pointed out that while the Education Law Center gave Pennsylvania an “A” for level of funding and effort, the state received an “F.” for fairness.

Urevick-Ackelsberg also challenged Willis on some of his methodology, questioning how he calculated districts’ per-student spending.

Willis’ report says the Chester Upland School District spends $36,000 per student, while the Pennsylvania Department of Education said the district spent about $17,000 — less than half that amount — in during the same period.

Willis said his numbers were adjusted for regional costs, but Urevick-Aceklsberg suggested he may not have included charter school students in his calculations.

In Pennsylvania, funding for charter schools is channeled through school districts. Urevick-Ackelsberg asked if “even though charter school spending is in the numerator, you’ve left charter school students out of the denominator.”

This would effectively inflate per-student spending figures in districts with large numbers of charter school students, who “tend to be poorer on average,” Urevick-Ackelsberg asserted, adding that the calculations “flipped the inequity in funding Pennsylvania schools.”

Willis said he wasn’t sure if he included charter school students in his calculations.

Urevick-Ackelsberg also challenged Willis’ claims that some school districts spend money more efficiently than petitioner districts, that is, spending less per student but achieving better results.

To make this point, Willis produced charts comparing each applicant district to a set of 20 other districts he identified as peers.

Urevick-Acelsberg noted that Willis compared the Lancaster School District — where more than 90 percent of the district’s 11,000 students are economically disadvantaged — to Radnor and Jenkintown, two affluent suburban districts.

“Was it fair to compare one of the largest and poorest neighborhoods in the Commonwealth with one of the smallest and wealthiest neighborhoods?” says Urevick-Aceklsberg.

The Jenkintown School District serves approximately 730 students; fifteen percent are economically disadvantaged and 1.2% are English language learners.

“By what world is one of the largest poorest districts with the most English students in the entire Commonwealth a fair match with the Jenkintown School District?” asked Urevick-Aceklsberg.

Willis argued that when the claimant districts are compared to their peer groups of 20 districts — rather than one or two other districts — it is a “reasonable and fair comparison.”

Are school expenses correlated with student success?

Witness Abel Koury also examined the link between funding and student achievement, and whether there is a significant relationship between school district spending and school growth.

Throughout their case, the petitioners have called expert witnesses to testify that increased funding can improve student success, if properly targeted.

Koury works as a Principal Investigator at Far Harbor LLC, a statistical consulting firm in Texas, and holds a Ph.D. in developmental psychology.

He analyzed the correlation between school districts’ spending and their score on the Average Growth Index (AGI), a statewide measure used to gauge student progress in a given year.

“Directing is a singular moment in time,” Koury said. “Growth doesn’t just consider students’ grade on a particular day, it considers their starting point.”

Koury analyzed district spending and AGI scores for English, math, science and writing exams for multiple school years between the 2013-14 and 2017-18 school years.

He found that there was no significant relationship between school spending and student growth, even when controlling for cost of living and demographics.

AGI scores are translated on a scale ranging from red (lowest growth scores, including negative growth) to dark blue (highest growth scores). Green signifies that students have achieved the year of expected academic growth.

“Essentially, when looking at the difference in funding, the districts that were in the red growth tier versus the dark blue growth tier, generally speaking, weren’t different in terms of funding,” Koury said.

During cross-examination, counsel for the petitioner Dan Cantor challenged the use of the AGI to compare school districts and draw conclusions about school funding.

Koury conceded that the research is “mixed” on whether value-added growth measures are reliable and valid. There can be wild fluctuations in AGI classifications from district to year.

As an example, Cantor cited the West Penn School District. His AGI growth scores for English Language Arts went from blue to red and then back to blue again over the three years.

Cantor also noted that the model is meant to account for “outside the classroom” factors that are not within the control of a school or teacher, and said one such factor is whether a school district is chronically underfunded.

“Yes [the model]has already controlled for all out-of-class factors including chronic underfunding in the district…then you will never find a correlation between AGI and school funding because it has already been taken out of the equation. Is not it? asked Cantor.

“I have to think about it,” Koury said, acknowledging he hadn’t considered the matter before.

Ultimately, he asserted that the criticism did not necessarily discredit his analysis, but agreed that with the statewide student growth model, “they are trying to at least control the different experiences that students live before entering the classroom” – and “in theory,” which includes attending a school in an underfunded district.

Witness removed after plagiarism charges

Halfway through their case, the defense withdrew a witness after allegations that sections of his expert report were plagiarized.

Mark Ornstein, a former CEO of a Michigan charter school system who also held administrative positions in Delaware County’s Intermediate Unit and Philadelphia School District, was to testify about the use of standardized test scores and the impact of class size on student learning.

After Ornstein was called to the stand, petitioning attorney Dan Cantor objected to his qualification as an expert.

Cantor excerpted several parts of his expert report that sounded identical or extremely close to passages from education professors and an undergraduate student at Penn State University.

“I can’t answer exactly what I got from what,” Ornstein said, when presented with an example of alleged plagiarism.

How “progressive” is Pa.’s funding system?

The petitioners also questioned the qualifications of another defense witness, Max Eden, a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a conservative think tank.

Cantor argued that Eden appeared on the stand not as an expert who had conducted formal, peer-reviewed research on the relationship between education spending and student achievement, but as an advocate.

“grooming” children for molestation.

Eden said he “greatly regrets” the job.

Eden was allowed to testify and argued that funding for education in Pennsylvania has increased dramatically over the past few decades.

He claimed that, if Pennsylvania “were to secede and declare itself its own republic…it would rank among the highest countries in the world in terms of school funding”, although he admitted in cross-examination that he had not taken health care and accounted for pension costs, which schools in many other countries are not required to pay.

Eden’s expert report included a graph from an Urban Institute study showing that Pennsylvania is ‘slightly progressive’ in spending on education, meaning it provides more funding to poor students than to non-poor students.

“The idea of ​​progressivity is that K-12 students from poorer backgrounds should get more from the state,” Eden said.

According to the chart, Pennsylvania ranked 24th out of 49 states rated on progressivity in the 2013–14 school year.

But in cross-examination, Cantor pointed out that in the same report, when progressivity was based on spending per student rather than revenue, Pennsylvania was the most regressive state in the nation.

“When you use an expense-based progressivity measure rather than an income-based progressivity measure, Pennsylvania comes in dead last, right?” He asked.

Cantor suggested the discrepancy could be due to the same issue raised during Willis’ testimony, where charter school students are not included in the calculations and per-student funding figures are inflated.

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