The judge presiding over the trial in Pennsylvania’s pending school funding case has rejected an attempt by the Speaker of the House, Bryan D. Cutler, to block the plaintiffs from presenting evidence of racial disparities in education spending, school funding and student achievement in the state’s public schools. The trial is scheduled to begin in Harrisburg on October 12.
The plaintiffs in William Penn School District, et al., v. Pennsylvania Department of Education, are six school districts, an association of over 160 rural and small schools, parents, students and the Pennsylvania State Conference of the NAACP. They contend that students across the state, especially those in poor communities, are being denied a “thorough and efficient” education as guaranteed by the Pennsylvania Constitution. The plaintiffs also assert that the state’s funding system creates gross disparities between rich and poor districts in both funding and basic educational resources, in violation of the state constitution’s Equal Protection clause.
Black and Latino students comprise 25% of public school enrollment in Pennsylvania, and these students disproportionately reside in the state’s most underfunded and resource-deprived districts.
House Speaker Cutler, a defendant in the case, sought to exclude evidence of student achievement and spending gaps, as well as “background” evidence of the long history of school segregation, housing and employment discrimination, and disproportionate incarceration rates in Pennsylvania. He claimed this evidence was irrelevant to the plaintiffs’ claims and so “inflammatory” that it would be too prejudicial to introduce at trial, even if relevant.
Judge Renee Cohn Jubelirer rejected Speaker Cutler’s argument that evidence of racial gaps in achievement and school spending was irrelevant. First, she noted that the Speaker conceded that Pennsylvania disaggregates data, including student achievement measures, by race, and that this data could be introduced at trial. The Judge further noted that given the NAACP’s status as a plaintiff, and its interest in ensuring educational equity for its members and their children, evidence related to the effect of underfunding on children of color is relevant. The judge also agreed with the plaintiffs that evidence of student demographics, including race, is relevant to the plaintiffs’ claims of school funding inadequacy and inequity.
The judge also relied on decisions of sister state courts, citing Gannon v. State in Kansas and Campaign for Fiscal Equity v.
State in New York. Both rulings considered evidence of racial disparities in achievement and funding, despite the absence of race-based claims.
Judge Jubelirer agreed with Speaker Cutler that evidence of school segregation, housing and employment discrimination, and disproportionate incarceration was not relevant. She therefore excluded short portions of two expert reports by Dr. Pedro Noguera, Dean of the University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, and Dr. Rucker Johnson, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at University of California, Berkeley.
Speaker Cutler’s attempt to block evidence he characterized as “inflammatory” mirrors the recent disturbing trend of state legislators censoring teaching about slavery and racism in public schools. Systemic racism in the United States is inextricably linked with the persistent denial of equal educational opportunity and adequate school funding in states across the country.
The history and persistence of school segregation and discrimination is directly relevant to school funding claims. The American Association of Pediatrics has declared that structural racism negatively impacts child development. Racism, whether experienced directly or indirectly, causes toxic stress in children that impacts their ability to learn. There is wide consensus that children experiencing toxic stress must be provided services in school to mitigate those impacts. States must ensure that schools serving children experiencing these adverse childhood experiences have the resources to address their needs.
To follow the progress of the upcoming school funding trial in Pennsylvania, visit Fund Our Schools PA .
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