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December 01, 2021

Student achievement gap is caused by disparities in funding, says former state education official

Matthew Stem, one-time deputy secretary for K-12 schools, began his second day of testimony on Wednesday morning

Education School Funding
PA State Capitol Dan Rainville/USA Today Network

The PA school funding trial is currently underway, and the second week of witness testimony included Matthew Stem, former deputy secretary of K-12 schools, who spoke on the root cause of the student achievement gap and the impact that COVID-19 had on the education system in the state.

Pennsylvania's long-awaited school funding trial is currently underway. The seven-year long fight by the William Penn School District and several other districts across the Commonwealth resulted in a 2017 state Supreme Court ruling, allowing the case to go to trial. 

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Matthew Stem, the former deputy secretary of K-12 schools for the state's Department of Education from 2015-2021, testified on the effectiveness of the state's educational standards and student achievement.  

Stem spoke on the disparity between students from low-achieving schools and high-achieving schools on Tuesday, noting that it's unlikely "that Pennsylvania will be able to close the achievement gaps we've seen for decades without additional funding, particularly for schools with high percentages of students in poverty." 

The lawsuit brought against the state's Department of Education alleges that Pennsylvania has failed to provide an adequate and equitable public education system, as guaranteed by the state's constitution. The plaintiffs believe that a "disproportionate reliance on local wealth" in public education funding has lead to a disparity in educational outcomes for students from different districts across the Commonwealth. 

FundOurSchools PA, a campaign sponsored by the Education Law Center - PA and Public Interest Law Center, which are representing the plaintiffs, published a map of every school district across the state, which includes information on how underfunded each school district is relative to the state as a whole. 

The plaintiffs are seeking a revamp of the state's public education system. 

In Tuesday's testimony, Stem noted that only 58 Black students across the state had taken the AP Computer Science exam in 2015. His view is that so few Black and Latino students are taking those exams because of "the condition of their education." 

He said that school safety concerns, specifically related to asbestos and lead paint exposure to students, is a state-wide issue, though he specified the Scranton School District as one part of the Commonwealth whose asbestos concerns caused school closures. 

That's certainly the case in Philadelphia, whose years-long struggle with asbestos remediation resulted in several school closures in recent years. 

Stem also spoke on the level of teacher effectiveness across the state. 

According to him, based on the Department of Education's view, students from low-income districts, and particularly people of color from those districts, are "twice as likely to be taught by inexperienced" or "out of field" teachers.  These include teachers with less than three years of experience, or those without traditional training in education for the grade or subject matter that they're teaching.

In reference to the one-time emergency funding for elementary and secondary schools provided by the federal government following the initial onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Department specifically noted that the funding could not address "historical resource inequities" in Pennsylvania schools, referring to the funding of basic education in the state. 

Stem said during Tuesday's testimony that the state should invest in student's social and emotional needs. 

Following questioning by a lawyer representing the Governor and Department of Education, he discussed state legislation that has already been passed, including a 2019 law to support trauma-informed approaches to establishing classroom climate and environment for students who have experienced trauma. 

Petitioners appealed a Commonwealth Court decision which has dismissed the case on the grounds that that the decision to increase funding or prove that funding was inadequate was a legislative question, not a legal one. In defending the dismissal, legislative respondents noted in their brief that the proper way to increase state funding for schools is "through the political process." Petitioners in the case appealed to the state Supreme Court, whose decision allowed for the trial to take place.

Lawyers representing Senate President Pro Tempore Jake Corman will cross-examine Stem's testimony on Wednesday afternoon. 

The focus of Stem's overall testimony was on the method of determining funding levels, and the ways in which the state's Department of Education assesses student achievement. 

Pennsylvania uses a funding formula which provides a different percentage of funding per school district depending on the wealth of their tax base, percentage of English language learners, and student poverty levels. Yet, according to the petitioners, only 14% of school funding comes from this funding formula. The remainder is distributed based on what individual school districts received in 2014-2015, when the funding lawsuit was first filed. 

The plaintiffs argue that the state's reliance on school districts to make up the difference is what creates the disparity in funding, which in turn creates a disparity in educational outcomes.  

According to the campaign, the average Philadelphia public school student is shortchanged $5,583 per year. However, the average public school student in the nearby Lower Merion School District is not shortchanged at all. 

Though the Philadelphia School District is not one of the plaintiffs included in the lawsuit, several City Council members, including Council members Helen Gym and Kendra Brooks, traveled to Harrisburg on Nov. 12 to show support for the plaintiffs and educational advocates rallying outside of the PA Capitol building. 

Later in the week, representatives from the Johnstown School District and the Springfield Township School District in Montgomery County are scheduled to testify. The trial can be followed using the court's livestream