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January 11, 2022

Philly schools need more resources to close achievement gaps, Hite testifies in education funding trial

Underfunded districts must make do without necessary personnel, to the detriment of students, Hite says

Education Courts
Pennsylvania Education Funding Thom Carroll/For PhillyVoice

School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite testified in a civil trial to determine whether Pennsylvania is meeting its constitutional obligations to provide equitable and adequate education funding.

Superintendent William Hite outlined the School District of Philadelphia's need for additional financial resources to address staffing shortages, facility maintenance and student performance gaps Tuesday as part of the ongoing court battle over Pennsylvania's public education funding.

Six school districts have sued state lawmakers, alleging the state has failed to provide equitable and adequate school funding, as guaranteed by the state constitution. They claim a "disproportionate reliance on local wealth" in public education funding has led to a disparity in educational outcomes. They seek to revamp the way public schools are funded. 

The School District of Philadelphia is not among those that filed suit, but a former student is among the plaintiffs, and its financial and academic challenges have been well-documented. 

Hite began his nearly full day of testimony by explaining the "tradeoffs" underfunded schools must often make. A school may need four additional support staff to aid students, but because the budget does not allow the school to add all four, administrators must prioritize needs. 

Underfunded schools have to "make do without some of the other necessary people," Hite said.

The size of the School District of Philadelphia makes the effects of its funding issues more prevalent, Hite said. It is, by far, the largest school district in the state, serving more than 200,000 students in district-run public and charter schools, which receive funding through the district's budget. 

"Philadelphia is the poorest big city in the country," Hite said, noting that creates additional barriers to accessing quality education. "We have larger numbers of young people who don't have access to early childhood services and who aren't on grade level, those experiencing trauma, homelessness, are new to the country, have special needs, and those who need additional resources." 

Hite testified that 65.14% of district students are labeled as "economically disadvantaged," though he said the percentage may be higher. That figure is based on the district's prior income-based method for determining students eligible for free meals. The district since has shifted to a "community-based" approach and now provides free meals to all students.

The district also has a large number of English language learners, and their percentage has grown since Hite became superintendent in 2012, he said. They require additional resources to teach English, which often takes place in a separate classroom for ELLs. As of the 2019-20 school year, there were 16,669 ELLs enrolled in district-run schools. 

Bilingual counseling services have helped students as they learn English, but the district does not have the resources to make them available at every school, Hite said. Further, only 15% of ELL students in grades 6-12 met or exceeded the target for English proficiency.

Hite said the disparities among English language learners meeting their proficiency goals exemplifies his educational philosophy – that all children, regardless of obstacles, have the ability to learn at high levels if given the resources and support to do so. 

During cross-examination by the defense, Hite stressed the importance of adding resources to schools that present major needs based on trends and score disparities on standardized tests. 

The district responded to low test scores in math and English at S. Weir Mitchell Elementary School in Kingsessing by adding additional support staff, including a reading specialist, Hite said. Only six of the district's 216 schools have certified librarians on staff. 

According to school district data, Mitchell Elementary students reached 25% reading and language arts proficiency on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams during the 2018-19 school year – up from 20% the previous year. Only 7% were proficient in math. 

School District students have not taken state assessments since then, as the COVID-19 pandemic made it difficult to take those exams in-person. 

When asked about the district's definition of "sufficient" resources, Hite said resources should provide students with everything they need to succeed. 

"When you have schools with low proficiency on tests, there are two things I think should happen," Hite said, referencing Mitchell Elementary. "You need sufficient resources to meet the needs of those students, and then those resources need to be sustainable, predictive and recurring." 

The district uses a period of three to five years to track how students move from one quartile of proficiency to another, noting that it takes time to move children, particularly those are a lower level of proficiency, Hite said. 

Schools with adequate, sufficient resources are able to achieve proficiency at higher levels compared to other schools, including those within the School District of Philadelphia, Hite said. He cited the academic achievements of students from Julia R. Masterman School and other magnet schools.

Masterman's parent association provides resources to the school that supplement the general allocation it receives. Demographically, Masterman has less economically disadvantaged students compared to non-magnet and neighborhood schools in the city. 

The school funding trial began in November – seven years after the lawsuit was filed. The suit initially was rejected by the Commonwealth Court, which ruled its claims were a legislative matter, not a legal one. But the state Supreme Court overturned that ruling in 2017, allowing for the trial to be held. 

The district's chief financial officer is expected to testify later this week. But during direct examination, Hite said the district is still recovering from the massive staff cuts and layoffs that occurred amid his first years as superintendent.

In 2013, the district was experiencing "financial distress," and on track for a $1.5 billion deficit. To reduce costs, the district cut nearly 20% of its employees, resulting in nearly 4,000 layoffs

The district closed 24 schools, and opened the 2013-2014 school year primarily with principals and teachers, Hite testified. Most guidance counselors, assistant principals, secretaries, support staff, custodians, cafeteria workers, and some school safety officers, were cut. 

The district also cut extracurricular activities, laid off many district administrators, including data collectors and district-wide support staff, and ended its credit recovery and summer school programs, he said.

Hite also emphasized the impact of losing maintenance staff, given that the average public school building in Philadelphia is 70 years old. In 2021, City Controller Rebecca Rhynhart released an interactive list of asbestos issues in district buildings. The issue has led to multiple school closures over the last several years. 

The funding issues Hite has experienced at the School District of Philadelphia are very different from those he experienced in his previous school leadership roles in Virginia, Georgia and Maryland. 

"We had budgetary challenges. But in those other places, we could take a temporary action which would solve the problem because funding would flow again in those districts," Hite said. "In Philadelphia, the challenges were structural. While we cut expenditures, they continued to outpace the revenue." 

Philadelphia public schools are short $5,583 per student based on a state-established benchmark for adequate funding, according to FundOurSchools PA, the campaign created to promote and raise awareness about the school funding trial.

Hite said the management of the district's budget has improved since he joined, adding that the district has kept expenditures low, but costs have begun to increase. Additional stimulus funding, and increased tax funding provided by the city has helped boost revenue. 

Still, Hite said district staffing has not recovered from the 2013 layoffs, saying it is not sufficiently staffed to meet students' needs. The district has publicly stated its current staffing shortages, including teachers and substitutes. 

Hite will depart the district at the end of the school year. The search for his successor is currently underway.