Pennsylvania Legislature Does Everything It Can to Destroy Philadelphia’s Public Schools

When you think about the plight of the School District of Philadelphia, it is easy to find yourself considering race-based conspiracy theories or anti-urban plots in which children become collateral damage.

To review: Governor Tom Corbett lost his bid for reelection last November, with his defeat tied closely to years of austerity budgeting and pledges never to raise taxes.  He had cut $1 billion out of the state’s school budget in 2011 and punished urban districts across the state—from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh to Allentown to York to Harrisburg to Reading to Chester Upland. He even tried to cancel the contract that had been in place between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers and the school district, and he had presided over state takeovers across a number of urban school districts, state takeovers that ignored needed improvements in the public schools but instead moved to open charter schools and pretend privatization would solve all the problems. In Pennsylvania, as in many other states, however, the legislature has chosen not to regulate charter schools, and a rash of scandals ensued.

All this brought down Republican Governor Corbett last November.  Tom Wolf, a Democrat who campaigned to support public education and especially the beleagured School District of Philadelphia, was elected governor.  Republicans, many from rural parts of the huge and demographically diverse state, still dominate both houses of the legislature, however, and the members of Pennsylvania’s legislature continue to punish Philadelphia’s so-called “failing” public schools.

The most recent chapter of the saga is about charter schools.  Last week  Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter declared that, “the School Reform Commission (the state appointed stand-in for an elected school board) had been backed into a corner on charters.” Why was the School Reform Commission voting on expanding the number of charters in the School District of Philadelphia?  Philadelphia City Paper reporter Daniel Denvir explains, “Last year, the state lawmakers finally approved a measure allowing Philly to raise its own cigarette tax.  But they did so on the condition that the SRC entertain charter applications that it could not afford to approve—thanks in significant part to budget cuts implemented by the very same legislature.”  Public school advocates in Philadelphia lobbied the legislature to pass the enabling legislation for the cigarette tax, because after closing 24 schools in 2013 and laying off thousands of teachers and most of the guidance counselors and school nurses and librarians, the School District of Philadelphia was desperate for any way to raise local taxes to make up for cuts in state funds from Harrisburg.  The legislature attached the poison pill—that the School District of Philadelphia must consider new charter applications—to the desperately needed permission to levy the local cigarette tax.

In recent years, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission had limited the authorization of new charter schools because of the way charters are funded according to Pennsylvania law.  As part of a recent series on Pennsylvania charters, Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, a reporter for the Harrisburg Patriot News, explains how funding for charters is allocated: “School districts in Pennsylvania must transfer 70 to 80 percent of their normal per-student cost over to a charter school for every student in the district that attends that school.  That means every time a charter school gains a student, a school district loses funding.  Previously, school districts were partially reimbursed by the state to offset the loss of students to charter schools, but this program was eliminated under Gov. Tom Corbett in 2011… The problem is that most public schools have fixed costs, from heating costs to teaching staff, that can’t be easily downscaled when a few students leave in a given year.  The result has squeezed funding at traditional public schools….”  Philadelphia is the site of the largest number of charter schools in the state; the loss of funding to charters has devastated the capacity of the public schools to provide needed services for Philadelphia’s children.

Here is what happened in Philadelphia last week, according to reporters for the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Amid intense pressure from all sides, the Philadelphia School Reform Commission voted Wednesday night to approve five new charter schools from among the 39 applications at the end of an often tumultuous evening… Wednesday was the first time the commission had approved new traditional charter schools since 2007.  Since that time the SRC had authorized converting low-performing district schools into Renaissance charter schools and has also expanded existing schools.  The five-member commission navigated a tricky path.  It ignored pleas from education advocates, Gov. Wolf, and many local and state politicians and candidates—including five of the six Democrats running for mayor—who called for a moratorium on new charters until the district has solved its financial crisis.”  Caitlin Emma at Politico reminds us of the potential financial implications for Philadelphia’s public schools: “Each new charter seat could cost $7,000 and Philly is facing a projected budget shortfall of $80 million for the 2015-2016 school year.”

But there is one more catch: as Bill Hangley reports for Newsworks, “Charter school providers turned down in Philly can make a case before a state appeals board.”  There was another poison pill in the enabling legislation last summer for the School District of Philadelphia to levy its cigarette tax: “But thanks to an amendment included in last summer’s cigarette tax bill, charter providers can now appeal the School Reform Commission’s decisions to the state’s Charter Appeal Board. It’s that board that now has the final say over which charters open, and which ones close.” Hangley adds: “What the board can’t consider… is the financial impact a new charter might have on a district’s budget.”  Hangley quotes Pedro Rivera, Governor Tom Wolf’s new Secretary of Education: “The charter school law is very specific.  You can’t make decisions for financial reasons.  It has to be on the merit of the application.”

Everybody agrees that the School District of Philadelphia is broke.  And, in Pennsylvania’s charter school funding system, the money to charters flows from the local school district on a per-child basis.  But control rests in Harrisburg—in the legislature and in the Charter Appeal Board appointed by the legislature—for decisions about the number of charters that will be opened in Philadelphia.  Legislators, predictably, continue to suggest that it is all the fault the teachers’ union.  If Philadelphia would break its union and pay teachers far less, so they say, that would solve the problem.

When you think about the plight of the School District of Philadelphia, it is easy to find yourself considering race-based conspiracy theories or anti-urban plots in which children become collateral damage.

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6 thoughts on “Pennsylvania Legislature Does Everything It Can to Destroy Philadelphia’s Public Schools

  1. The SRC is going to use the escape-hatch created by last summer’s “cigarette tax” to undo what a legitimate court has ruled, namely the survival of the Teachers’ Union & benefits thereof. This is not a time to try for a panel in Harrisburg to undo a stated court’s ruling: the union bargaining its contract for daily operations and future expansions, health benefits and protections. The SRC is attempting to override hard-won victories not just for teachers but children-students as well. The last phrase in your excellent essay, ‘collateral damage,’ is unusually poignant, since that term has come to be used in war actions where people are killed but degraded below the weapons that killed them. When used to reference hapless students but others from their context also victimized and degraded to less than human, less than the instruments of violence and killing, it’s a wakeup call for all. About five-thousand teachers and staff have been made collateral damage
    by dismissal and firing over the last two years already before one considers the la. test attempt at insult. The court ruled that the teachers’ contract was legal and not to be undone by a vote of an appointed body, namely the SRC: the contract remains. With goings-on like this, where is the classroom and education, howsoever distracted? Tragic…..all around: yet, persist we must.

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