Written by Susan Spicka
February 15, 2022

PA’s school funding lawsuit trial has reached the phase where lawyers representing Republican leadership are bringing their witnesses to the stand to testify in defense of Pennsylvania’s current (unconstitutional) school funding system. 

Below we will highlight a few tidbits from testimony this week. We link to the full account of each individual’s testimony, which you can also find at https://www.fundourschoolspa.org/news.

The Plagiarist

On February 7th, one of the defense’s first witnesses, Mark Ornstein, was withdrawn after a petitioners’ attorney pointed out examples of apparent plagiarism in his “expert report,” including from a paper written by a Penn State undergraduate student.

The Cyber Charter CEO

On February 8th and 10th, Reese Flurie, former CEO of Commonwealth Charter Academy, the largest cyber charter school in PA, took the stand. He endured hours of blistering cross examination, where the millions of tax dollars that CCA spends on slick advertising couldn’t help him hide his school’s shockingly low student performance and other many deficiencies.

On a two-year, combined basis, only 28.8% of CCA students achieved proficiency on English Language Arts and Math PSSA exams, and the school’s growth score was negative, meaning that students regressed academically.

It’s four-year cohort graduation rate is 53%; its five-year rate is 67%; and its six-year rate is 70%. For the 2019-20 school year, more than 10% of CCA students dropped out, about twice the average rate for charter schools and seven times the average rate for school districts. 

The “Expert”

And then, on Friday, February 11th, Jason Willis, a researcher and program director at WestEd, a nonprofit education-focused research agency, took the stand as an “expert” presentedt a report he had prepared on behalf of legislative leaders Senator Jake Corman and Representative Bryan Cutler. 

In this report, he either didn’t know how to do a basic calculation or was intentionally attempting to inflate the amount of funding spent per pupil in districts that educate a lot of charter school students. 

On cross examination, Public Interest Law Center attorney, Dan Urevick-Acklesberg, uncovered his incompetence (or malice?).

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

From the Philadelphia Inquirer:

Urevick-Ackelsberg also questioned Willis on his per-pupil spending calculations. For instance, his report identified Chester Upland as spending $36,000 per student; the Pennsylvania Department of Education reported the district spending around $17,000 during the same years Willis considered.

Willis said his figures were adjusted for “regional cost,” but Urevick-Ackelsberg asked whether he had failed to properly account for charter schools, which are funded through school districts. Counting a district’s spending on charters, but not the students attending them, would inflate per-pupil spending figures for districts with sizable charter populations — including many of Pennsylvania’s poorest, Urevick-Ackelsberg said.

Willis said he didn’t know whether he included charter students in the calculations. (emphasis mine)

And then there was Max Eden on February 14th. Eden is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and was invited to testify by legislators. Eden acknowledged that he had never conducted a formal research study on the relationship between education spending and student achievement or any formal peer-reviewed studies.

On cross examination when an attorney asked Eden about a chart in a report labeled A2, which appeared on p. 17 of the report he was discussing,  Eden stated, “I tend to not necessarily to read towards table A2 in a given study when there is the top-line finding that is graphically represented in multiple forms … which suggests that that’s the finding that they believe to be most important.”👀👀👀

Read a summary of Eden’s (not so expert) testimony HERE.

What is next?

The trial is expected to conclude in about two weeks. Sign up for updates at www.FundOurSchoolsPA.org so that you won’t miss anything important.

Our Thorough and Efficient team is working on plans for statewide vigils on March 15th to mark the end of this historic trial. Please keep an eye out for information later this week. It is going to take all of us working together to get students the funding from Harrisburg that they need and deserve.