What does it mean when, in June, the leaders of a school district that serves over 131,000 students are working with city and state governments to locate enough money to open school in August? In the United States—where provision of K-12 education has for nearly two centuries been provided publicly, where it has been believed essential for the formation of an informed democracy, where all have taken for granted the provision of schooling that is free and universally available—what does Pennsylvania’s seeming incapacity to provide adequately staffed schools for Philadelphia’s children mean?
On June 18, the Associated Press reported that school superintendent William Hite remained alarmed about a gaping hole in next year’s school budget. Still needed was “at least an additional $96 million to offer students even a ‘wholly inadequate’ education next year.”
Pennsylvania lacks a working formula to distribute funds to local school districts. At the same time the School District of Philadelphia has been under state control since 2001, with a state-appointed School Reform Commission making decisions in place of an elected local school board. According to Education Voters of Pennsylvania, under the current system, “City Council is the body that approves local taxes going to the District as well as the transfer of funds from the City budget.” But all of these bodies in charge of the schools say they are unable to come up with the money to educate Philadelphia’s children. Philadelphia is today’s poster child for the destruction of a public school system—primarily by a state government unwilling to carry out one of its primary responsibilities.
At the end of May, Valerie Strauss covered the situation in the Washington Post: “One surefire way to wreck a public school system. There are plenty of ways, but right now let’s just focus on one district, the state-run Philadelphia School District, which has been starved for funding by the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and has been a guinea pig for corporate school reform, with widespread school closures and rapid charter expansion in the past decade.” As Strauss reported, in late May the state-created School Reform Commission itself staged a protest by refusing to pass the doomsday budget presented by William Hite, the school superintendent. Hite—explaining that the proposed budget would elevate class size to 41, cut special education, and lay off 800 teachers in addition to the mass of teachers laid off a year ago when 24 local schools were closed in a crisis that prefigured what is happening again this year—declared that the budget he was presenting was insufficient to protect the safety and well-being of the district’s students.
Meanwhile, according to Dan Mezzacappa in the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, payments to Philadelphia’s charters, which are set by state law, are currently “nearly a third of its (the district’s) $2.4 billion budget.” Mezzacappa reports that half of the state’s 170 charter schools are located in the School District of Philadelphia.
The Philadelphia Daily News reported that, after months of wrangling, on June 19 at its last meeting until next fall, the Philadelphia City Council voted to authorize the city to borrow $27 million in the current fiscal year that ends June 30, and, “It also introduced a last-minute bill that would authorize the city to borrow another $30 million for the district next fiscal year to help close a $96 million deficit.” The loan for next fiscal year will not be voted on until Council returns in September, continuing uncertainty throughout the summer.
The loans, adding up to $57 million, leave a budget hole of $40 million that must be filled. The Daily News reports that the school district has sought a $2 per pack cigarette tax from the state legislature and is looking to the state budget for $39 million in state aid and pension relief. However, the state itself faces a budget shortfall, which may jeopardize this expected infusion of state dollars.
While concessions have been demanded again and again from the teachers union, experts do not attribute the crisis to labor demands. David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, published a commentary on June 20 that describes what he calls “an extraordinary legal complaint” filed in March by the School District of Philadelphia with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The district is asking the Supreme Court effectively to nullify “portions of a collective bargaining agreement between the Philadelphia School District and the teachers union.” While the purpose of the legal complaint is to free up funds through the manipulation of the teachers’ contract, Sciarra highlights the outrageous irony of a public school district’s filing a complaint with the state supreme court to blame the state for cutting $300 million in state aide in 2011-2012 as the cause of the school district’s financial crisis. “The district’s filing is the legal equivalent of asking the Supreme Court for permission to rearrange deck chairs on a fast-sinking ship. What the district’s complaint avoids is stating the obvious: the abject failure to provide city students with the basic resources necessary to achieve Pennsylvania’s own academic standards. And the reason why is also obvious: The school district—and the entire state—is engaged in an ongoing and severe violation of the right of Philadelphia students to a ‘thorough and efficient’ education under the Pennsylvania Constitution.”
Ironically, according to Kevin McCorry writing for Newsworks, “In 2006, under Gov. Ed Rendell, the Republican-controlled Legislature analyzed the state’s method for distributing education funds in a ‘costing-out study’ and in 2008, implemented the type of formula for which advocates have been campaigning. This formula not only provided a mechanism for allocating state resources, but operated on the premise that funding levels should be raised to meet the actual cost of educating all students to the state’s standards. In 2011, faced with Great Recession-era revenue, the newly elected Corbett scrapped that formula.”