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Pennsylvania state education funding trial inches closer to conclusion

Carolyn Kaster

On today’s episode of The Confluence: Testimony from the defense has concluded in the trial over how Pennsylvania funds its education system; we speak to a researcher about the potential for more people to experience prolonged grief after losing loved ones to COVID-19; and a look at Mehmet Oz’s outsider campaign to become Pennsylvania’s Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate primary. 

Witness testimony ends in state education funding trial
(0:00 - 5:52)

Testimony concluded Tuesday in Commonwealth Court in a trial that could change the way Pennsylvania funds its public schools. Six school districts, several parents and two statewide organizations filed suit saying the state’s current system for funding is inadequate, inequitable, and violates the state constitution.

The defendants called ten witnesses who largely disputed that allegation.

“They brought witnesses who said, you know, when you compare Pennsylvania to other states, it puts a really decent amount of funding into public education, pointed to some steps the state has taken to distribute money more equitably,” says Mallory Falk, the education reporter for WHYY. “They also called up witnesses who kind of called into question the relationship between spending and student achievement.”

The defense also pointed out that families have options beyond traditional public K-12 schools, suggesting parents can opt to send students to cyber charter or Christian private schools.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs, the petitioners in this suit, called a final rebuttal witness Tuesday, Penn State professor Matthew Kelly, who also testified earlier in the trial. He said some defense witnesses “artificially inflated” how much some districts spend per student, making it seem as if some districts are spending more money on a smaller number of students.

“If you use that census data, it looks like Pennsylvania is spending about $3,000 more per student on average than what the Pennsylvania Department of Education's own data shows,” says Falk. This is because census data on student spending does not count funding allocated to charter schools.

Closing arguments are scheduled for March 10, followed by post-trial briefings and oral arguments.

A survey has found people who lost loved ones to COVID-19 may be at higher risk of experiencing prolonged grief
(6:00 - 13:03)

More than 3,000 people in Allegheny County have died from COVID-19, according to the county Health Department. A survey by a local researcher looks into the grieving process for people who lost a loved one to COVID-19 and their research suggests those people might be at a higher risk for developing prolonged grief disorder.

“Prolonged grief disorder is characterized by intense yearning for the deceased, preoccupation with thoughts about the deceased and an inability to accept the death,” explains Nadine Melhem, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. “That's usually continuous for a long period of time, and is associated with clinically significant distress and impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning.”

Melhem previously studied the psychiatric consequences of war in her home country of Lebanon, and decided to study grief reactions in children as part of her Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Pittsburgh.

She says those with prolonged grief may experience symptoms for up to a year. For her research, Melhem surveyed about 400 adolescents and adults who lost someone to COVID-19, and found about 55% had “intense grief reactions” that are characteristic of prolonged grief.

However, Melhem acknowledges participants were surveyed relatively soon after losing loved ones, about four months after their death, so more study is needed to see whether the participants ultimately developed prolonged grief.

“There were a lot of things about losing someone early on, when we did the study that were different than … the natural things that go around a death,” says Melhem. “Many people were not able to see their loved ones at the hospital when they died. They were not able to do the actual rituals, religious rituals and have the support of family members around them during that time, which could also have complicated the grieving process.”

Melhem says the need for more mental health treatment has generally risen in the COVID-19 pandemic, and prolonged grief is a disorder with rates that will likely rise, given the death toll due to the pandemic.

A look at why some GOP voters are excited about Dr. Oz’s run for U.S. Senate 
(13:05 - 18:30)

There’s a big question at the heart of Mehmet Oz’s campaign to be the Republican nominee for Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate seat that’s up for grabs: Can a rich guy with a famous television show win over the commonwealth’s voters?

WHYY’s Katie Meyer reports that of course, this wouldn’t be the first time it happened. She went to an Oz town hall in Washington County to see how some GOP voters are feeling.

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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