School Funding Lawsuit


December 18, 2021 — With the right supports, all children, including children from economically disadvantaged families, can learn. But in Pennsylvania, needed supports for children who are economically disadvantaged — or English learners — are not available in districts lacking in local wealth.

This was a common theme during week four of the Pennsylvania school funding trial, featuring testimony on the role of early childhood education and testimony about the School District of Lancaster, one of six school districts suing state legislative leaders and other state officials for shortchanging students in low-wealth communities.

The court heard testimony from Dr. Steven Barnett, an education economist who founded the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University and has studied early childhood education for decades. He explained that high-quality, intensive pre-K programs can make a real long-term impact, effectively mitigating disadvantages that young children living in poverty face before they enter kindergarten.

“If we provide rich early learning opportunities to children who otherwise would not have them in those first five years, we can substantially alter that pattern of beginning school far behind and staying behind,” he said.

Barnett has found through economic research that the benefits of high-quality pre-K programs — in earnings, life outcomes, and academic attainment — outweigh the costs of implementing the programs by a factor of about 10 to 1.

Tracey Campanini, the deputy secretary of the state’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning, testified that her office estimates that Pennsylvania is meeting only 40% of the need for high-quality preschool among children who are economically disadvantaged. Deputy Secretary Campanini described preschool as “an essential foundational opportunity ” that affords children living in poverty skills to transition into kindergarten.

In two days of testimony, Superintendent Damaris Rau gave many examples of needed supports that are lacking in the School District of Lancaster, where 91% of students are economically disadvantaged and 20% are English learners. The district has just four reading specialists to serve 6,000 elementary school students and no math intervention specialists. While 25% of students are chronically absent – more than 2,500 students – there are just three attendance specialists.

“Children in poor school districts like the School District of Lancaster and other districts around the Commonwealth are not being served appropriately,” Rau said. “The funding that we are receiving does not allow them to achieve the standards the state has set forth.”

“I didn’t speak English when I started in kindergarten. I was poor, one of seven children, and I made it because I had the right teachers and I had the right resources. And I know that every single child who gets those same things can make it.” – Dr. Damaris Rau, Superintendent of the School District of Lancaster

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