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State school funding trial could continue ‘well into February’

Kent M. Wilhelm
Spotlight PA

On today’s episode of The Confluence: WHYY’s Mallory Falk updates us on a lawsuit alleging the state does not fund school districts fairly, in violation of the state constitution; Pittsburgh Magazine’s Hal B. Klein takes stock of the city’s restaurant scene, and what he anticipates in 2022; and local troupe CorningWorks resumes performances of an interactive show, ‘The Tipping Point.'

Pennsylvania school funding lawsuit continues with plaintiffs presenting more witnesses
(0:00 - 8:09)

The trial to consider whether Pennsylvania's funding formula for school districts is unconstitutional, which began in November, resumes this week in Commonwealth Court.

Plaintiffs allege that the state’s school funding model is inequitable, harming the students with the most need.

The suit was brought against the state legislature, governor, and Department of Education by six school districts, several parents and two statewide organizations.

“What’s at stake is the way schools across the commonwealth are funded,” says Mallory Falk, WHYY’s education reporter. “Last week an expert testified that the spending gaps among school districts in Pennsylvania are some of the widest in the country.”

According to the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, the state provides 38% of the funding for school districts, and this year’s appropriation was more than $7 billion.

In the time since the suit was filed in 2014, the state passed a funding formula that’s supposed to account for students with higher needs and the school districts’ capacity to raise local revenues. However, Falk explains the “Fair Funding Formula,” which takes into account poverty levels and English Language Learners within a district, only applies to new funding, a small percentage of the overall state allocation.

So far, plaintiffs have presented testimony from school faculty and leaders about how a lack of funding has led to increasing problems: from outdated textbooks to decrepit buildings.

“The question at the heart of this case is really, what is the baseline level of education that Pennsylvania’s public schools are constitutionally required to provide,” says Falk. “The state constitution says the commonwealth shall provide a ‘thorough and efficient’ education, and the plaintiffs and defendants in this case are presenting different definitions of ‘thorough and efficient’.”

The plaintiffs are expected to call more witnesses over the next few weeks, including Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Education, Noe Ortega.

Falk says, the defense is expected to chip away at the argument that funding is the main determinant of how well students do in school, or how much a student can improve, and to argue that there are other factors at play.

The trial will likely last well into February, at which time the judge will sift through the evidence presented before giving a verdict. It’s anticipated that whoever loses the case will appeal to the State Supreme Court, but any change to education funding will require action by the state legislature.

Pittsburgh’s restaurant scene continues to struggle amid rising prices, supply chain issues
(8:11 - 17:20)

Pittsburgh restaurants might be experiencing a bit of déjà vu. With COVID-19 cases surging again, some diners might opt to cancel those reservations and stay at home, or maybe get take-out.

“Right now the biggest word that I’m seeing [to describe dining for the coming year] is ‘uncertainty,’” says Hal B. Klein, the associate editor and dining critic for Pittsburgh Magazine.

“Two months ago, I don’t think most people were thinking, ‘Oh, we’re gonna have to close our restaurant for a week, and then reopen again for four days, and then close again for two days, because of this highly contagious variant that’s gonna surge through,’” says Klein.

Restaurants have been hard hit over the last two years, and Klein says while people want to go out and support restaurants, some reticence has crept in amid rising COVID-19 cases.

However, Klein says one look at his “Best New Restaurants” list does point to optimism, from 40 North at Alphabet City’s farm-to-table fare, to Squirrel Hill’s African Cuisine and Yue Bai Wei’s transcontinental cooking.

Klein says the ways restaurants have adapted are likely here to stay. Many offered outdoor dining in warmer months, and some moved to increase wages to attract staff. But Klein also expects fewer dishes will adorn menus for the time being.

“Until things get a little bit more steady with the supply chain, I think people who run kitchens are going to have to make choices about what they're going to offer every night.”

CorningWorks presents ‘The Tipping Point’ 
(17:25 - 22:30)

A Pittsburgh troupe’s new dance-theater work puts audiences in the shoes of people driven from their homes.

90.5 WESA’s Bill O’Driscoll has more on “The Tipping Point,” a show from the troupe CorningWorks.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in Monday to Thursday at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.

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