Daniel Denvir Explains Why Cutting Health Care Benefits for Philly Teachers Will Hurt Schools

Daniel Denvir, the reporter who has been covering the woes of the School District of Philadelphia for the Philadelphia City Paper, has written a new piece to explain what he believes is the most dangerous consequence of the School Reform Commission’s cancellation of the teachers contract in Philadelphia last Monday.  He answers this question:  Since teachers in other school districts pay into their health insurance plans, why shouldn’t Philadelphia’s teachers do so as well?  I urge you to read and consider Denvir’s new article: Why Health-Care Cuts for Philly Teachers Are Likely to Hurt Schools, Too.

Denvir explains that “as things now stand, Philadelphia teachers are already paid less than their suburban counterparts to teach under far more difficult conditions—conditions that have only gotten worse amid the severe budget crises and deep staffing cuts…  At issue is not just an individual teacher’s financial position and morale but, as a consequence, the School District of Philadelphia’s ability to recruit and retain the best educators possible.”

Denvir writes that teachers have essentially been working under a wage freeze: “The PFT (Philadelphia Federation of Teachers) contract expired last summer, and teachers have since been working under a pay freeze.  That freeze has denied teachers not only across-the-board hikes typical in past years, but also standard annual raises, known as ‘steps’ and ‘lanes,’ or raises for obtaining advanced degrees. The district tells City Paper that the lane and step freeze has saved about $31 million to date.”

Denvir cites a 2010-2011 analysis by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association documenting that salaries for Philadelphia’s teachers were at that time 19 percent lower than teachers’ salaries in Bucks and Montgomery counties.  And due to the school district’s elimination of budget for essentials like copy paper, teachers have been spending often hundreds of dollars for basic supplies.

Denvir quotes Dan Ueda, the former robotics coach at Central High School (an elite magnet school) and teacher of physics, pre-calculus, robotics, engineering and design technology.  Ueda recently left that position to join the University of Pennsylvania as a developer of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) programs for local public schools.  Ueda describes his working life as a Philadelphia school teacher: “The hours are long, the conditions are extremely difficult at most schools, job security due to constant threat of layoffs is very low, and resources—both material and personnel—get reduced every year.  Why would you stay in those conditions if you could teach in safer environments, with more resources, more support, and higher pay in New Jersey or the suburbs?  Central High School, one of the best places to work in the city, lost five high-quality teachers last year to private or suburban institutions (myself included) amost completely due to this contract battle.”

Earlier this week this blog covered the state-appointed School Reform Commission’s abrupt cancellation of the teachers’ contract in Philadelphia.

Swarthmore Profs Say Philly Schools Lack Needed Money: PA Funding Process Flawed

“Each year, as predictably as classes end in June, the School District of Philadelphia faces a budget crisis for the coming school year,” write John Caskey and Mark Kuperberg, economists at Swarthmore College. “In 2014, the School Reform Commission, the school district’s state-imposed governing body, for the first time and in violation of the city charter, refused to pass a budget, arguing that there were insufficient funds to run the schools responsibly…  In the summer of 2013…. the budgets of many individual schools allowed for no counselors, no secretaries to assist principals or answer telephones, and no arts or sports programs.  With a last-minute financial-aid pledge from the city, some laid-off personnel were recalled, and schools opened on time.  But the district was still in such dire straits that Philadelphia’s newspapers launched a drive to obtain pencils, paper, and other basic supplies.  This is no way to run a school system, much less the eighth largest in the United States.  We investigate why these school crises keep recurring… We conclude that the unwieldy process for financing the district means that such crises are bound to recur unless that process is changed.”

It can be hard to sort out the truth in discussions of public finance, because, of course, politicians select the numbers that deflect blame from themselves and their policies.  In Philadelphia the politics around the funding of Pennsylvania’s largest school district are filled with rancor.  Philadelphia is a poor city in a very rural state, a city where many of the children are black and Hispanic, while Pennsylvania’s small towns are largely white.  It is helpful to be able to read an objective academic report that lays out the facts and realities of the Philadelphia school crisis, especially in these next few days when Superintendent William Hite will be forced to decide whether he can safely open school on September 8, 2014, at a time when the state legislature won’t even meet again until mid-September to consider enabling the School District of Philadelphia to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that school administrators are counting on to raise $81 million to make up part of this year’s school budget. (This blog most recently covered the Philadelphia school crisis here.)

Here, according to Caskey and Kuperberg, is the way funding is set up for the school district, which—unlike many cities in other states—has no independent taxing authority.  “Of the district’s $2.7 billion in revenues for 2013, 50 percent came from the state and 14 percent from the federal government; city and local contributions made up the remainder.” “From the perspective of the district, multiple sources of funding create three significant planning problems. First, the state legislature can alter the governor’s proposed budget.  Second the city council may not grant the district’s request for funds…. When the allocations from the state and city deviate from what the district expects, it must adjust its budget.  Third, there is a ‘who goes first?’ problem.  In years when the district appeals to the state and city for additional funding, each is reluctant to pledge new funds without knowing how much the other will commit.”

One problem Caskey and Kuperberg don’t address is that Pennsylvania lacks a school funding distribution formula that sufficiently equalizes state aid to the school districts with problems like concentrated poverty and limited ways to raise local funds.  Many states have formulas that equalize school funding more effectively than Pennsylvania can according to its current system.  Earlier in the summer, David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center, declared, “The state, through the school district and the Department of Education in Harrisburg, has utterly failed these children.”

After the recession in 2008, Pennsylvania made its state education budget overly dependent on federal stimulus dollars that ended during the 2010-2011 school year, at the same time the new Governor Tom Corbett pledged not to raise taxes.  Corbett immediately cut $1 billion from the state’s education allocation, a full 10 percent of the school budget, though some investments were added later to bring the cuts to 7 percent of the overall state school budget.  “Reductions in state funding fell disproportionately on Philadelphia. The district, which educates about 10 percent of the state’s children, shouldered about 30 percent of the state cuts.”

Caskey and Kuperberg remind readers that school districts cannot easily manipulate their budgets, as many costs are fixed and others have been negotiated in contracts.  Fixed costs include: federal mandates for special education, state laws that determine class size based on enrollment, fund transfers to charter schools, heating and maintenance for buildings, and required debt payments.  The authors report that between 66 and 80 percent of costs are “predetermined from one year to the next, and many of these costs, such as negotiated wage contracts increase automatically.”  Because school districts, by their very nature, bring the services of professional adults to serve children, the primary place any school district can cut is by reducing staff, which is what happened a year ago and what Superintendent Hite worries about as school opens in 2014.  Hite believes a climate of safety where children can learn can be established only with an adequate number of teachers and other staff.

The authors conclude: “Philadelphia is a much poorer city than many people realize.  With one-quarter of its residents living below the poverty level, Philadelphia is the ninth-poorest U.S. city with a population over 250,000.  Relative to Pittsburgh and the Philadelphia suburbs, the school district is significantly underfunded by the state and its city government, especially when one adjusts for the comparatively large percentages of special education, English language learners and low-income students.  In short, the district faces huge challenges with limited resources.”

The report documents an alarmingly serious set of structural problems. What it cannot tell us is whether there is a way to break through this logjam and amass the political will to educate the over 131,000 children and adolescents who reside in Philadelphia.  This is really not a school finance question.  It is a moral question.

Pennsylvania Budget Fails to Provide for Desperate Education Needs of Philadelphia’s Children

Writing for the NY Times, Josh Barro points out: “Kansas has a problem.  In April and May, the state planned to collect $651 million from personal income tax.  But instead it received only $369 million.” Kansas is one of the states where spending for public education has fallen recently due to tax cutting by its governor and legislators.  According to Barro, part of the problem is the way Kansas restructured income taxes for small businesses.  It seems the tax cuts are turning out to be bigger than their designers expected.  Some now worry that the result will be catastrophic: “Yes, if you cut taxes, you get less revenue,” writes Barro, who adds: “As revenue comes in over the next few months, Kansas will learn just how big of a tax cut it’s given out in the name of small business, and what it will have to do to the rest of the state budget to make the tax cut affordable.”

Despite widespread evidence to the contrary in places like Ohio, where I live, many believe tax cuts are essential for driving a state’s economic growth.  About Kansas, Paul Krugman wrote yesterday:  “But Kansas isn’t booming — in fact, its economy is lagging both neighboring states and America as a whole. Meanwhile, the state’s budget has plunged deep into deficit, provoking a Moody’s downgrade of its debt.”

Another measure of a state’s strength is the quality of its investment in the education of children and adolescents.  In fact tax cuts, added to the lingering effects of the 2008 recession, are one of the reasons why the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities can report that 35 states are now spending less on public education than back in 2007 before the recession. If a state needs to cut expenditures (after tax cuts reduce revenue), the quickest place to go is the biggest line in most state budgets: public education.  Schooling is a big investment because of the sheer size of the endeavor; across the 50 states our society educates 50 million students in public schools.

One state that has cut taxes in recent years is Pennsylvania, with dire consequences for the School District of Philadelphia—the state’s largest school district.  According to Reid Wilson of the Washington Post, who has described Governor Tom Corbett’s tax cuts: “All told, Corbett has signed legislation cutting taxes on businesses by about $1.2 billion since taking office.”  Three simultaneous changes to Philadelphia state school funding have accompanied the tax cuts and created a crisis in Philadelphia’s public schools: (1) In 2011, Pennsylvania cut $1 billion from K-12 and higher education;  (2) at the same time Pennsylvania abandoned its per-pupil school funding distribution formula;  and (3) Pennsylvania made local school districts responsible for funding the charters their students attend.  The result has been, according to a recent post on this blog, catastrophic for the School District of Philadelphia.

Last Friday, 150 pf Pennsylvania’s college and university professors sent An Open Letter to Members of the Pennsylvania General Assembly, a stunning document that demands better funding not for their own institutions but instead to address the ongoing catastrophe in Philadelphia, whose funding sources for next fall’s school opening had not yet been determined three days prior to the June 30 state budget deadline.  The college teachers write about the desperate need for basic services for students in Philadelphia—honors and AP courses, sports programs (that would make later college athletic scholarships available to these students), enough college counselors to help high school students file college applications (Some high schools in Philadelphia have lacked any counselors after massive school closures and staff cuts at the end of last school year.), and full curricular offerings and quality high school programs to reduce the need for so much remedial education at the college level.

In their letter, the college faculty members make a strong case for very modest state tax increases—a shale gas extraction tax, a statewide sin tax on cigarettes, and authorizing legislation for Philadelphia itself to impose a $2 tax on a pack of cigarettes.  But, as reported by the Harrisburg Patriot-News, the legislature, agreeing on a budget just before last night’s midnight deadline, did not oblige by increasing any taxes; nor did legislators enact any new taxes statewide.  Legislators threatened—as the price for authorizing legislation to allow the city of Philadelphia itself to add a local $2 cigarette tax—that the Philadelphia delegation to the state House of Representatives (including Democrats)  would have to support a GOP-sponsored pension reform plan for the state.  However, Philadelphia must still wait to see if, as apparently agreed, member of the General Assembly will pass—within a couple of days and outside the budget—the enabling legislation for the city to add its $2 cigarette tax.  Whether Governor Corbett will sign the budget is also in question; he threatens a veto because the House omitted pension cuts in the budget bill that was passed.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter “decried the coupling of pensions and school funding, comparing the treatment of Philadelphia’s schoolchildren to that of damsels in distress in the silent movies. ‘It is a sad day in public service that we find children being held on the railroad tracks awaiting some rescue to come from somewhere that has nothing to do with them.'”

The very substantive plea of 150 Philadelphia-area college professors fell on deaf ears in Harrisburg.  Their letter goes to the heart of how school budgets need to work: “Finally, it is crucial that increases in the public education budget not be directed into one-time grants that bi-pass classrooms in dire need.  We must ensure that these critical funds are put into essential school staffing and programming for students who are in desperate need of support.  Therefore, we also suggest that the legislature allocate any revenues generated for K-12 public education directly towards the Basic Education Subsidy, as well as towards the reinstatement of the (state) charter reimbursement payments to school districts.”  The budget as passed adds some for education, though the basic subsidy is flat-funded and the overall education allocation is less than in the 2010-2011 school year.

Ironically, according to Kevin McCorry writing for Newsworks, “In 2006, under Gov. Ed Rendell, the… Legislature analyzed the state’s method for distributing education funds in a ‘costing-out study’ and in 2008, implemented the type of formula being requested by these college teachers.  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.”

How is it that the very real, well-documented needs of a big city school district are being ignored by a legislature in one of our largest Northeastern industrial states.  One explanation is that in states like Pennsylvania and my state Ohio and Illinois, the legislature has become dominated by representatives of the suburbs and rural areas, representatives who lack sympathy for the challenges in big city schools where poverty is concentrated.

Another way to look at our current school “reform” politics is as the result of a test-and-punish school policy, set in place in 2002 by the federal testing law No Child Left Behind, that castigates the schools in our poorest cities where poverty is concentrated as “failing” schools.  It has come to be widely accepted that these so-called “low performing” urban schools must be shaped up not through the kind of investment the rest of us take for granted, but instead by punishing them and their teachers for failure.  The editorial board of the Rethinking Schools magazine has decried this sort of thinking by declaring that a school reform system based on ranking schools by high stakes tests disguises class and race-based privilege as merit.  Wealthy and homogeneous suburban school districts—able to fund themselves by taxing their own property wealth—thrive, while schools in big cities are closed and privatized at the same time they are being starved of funds by their state legislatures.

Lacking Fair Basic Aid Plan, Pennsylvania Continues to Starve Philly Schools

The tragedy in the School District of Philadelphia continues.  Here are some of the realities.  Last year after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett cut $1.1 billion out of the state school budget, the district was forced to lay off 4,000 teachers and other staff and close 24 public schools.  The district reassigned thousands of students to new schools last fall and slashed essentials like high school guidance counselors and school nurses.

The schools in Philadelphia have been operating for many years under state control.  The state appointed School Reform Commission, which has implemented a “portfolio school reform plan” designed by consultants at the Boston Consulting Group, currently functions as the closest thing to a school board.  It reports to the governor not the voters.  Portfolio plans emphasize the business strategy called “creative disruption”—closing and opening schools in a perpetual cycle—ending schools with low scores and experimenting with a variety of privatized charter schools.

This year Governor Corbett proposes to add funding in the state budget, but the extra funds are earmarked primarily for increasing the special education subsidy.  Pennsylvania’s Education Law Center charges, “There is no proposed increase to the state’s Basic Education Funding line item, an essential funding source for all K-12 public school students.  Instead the Governor has followed a familiar script—tying his funding proposal ($241 million) to special grants and as-yet-realized sources of revenue…”

Philadelphia Parents United for Public Schools calls Corbett’s budget “a paltry handout,” and “too little, too late.”  Helen Gym, the organization’s president, decries the Governor’s proposal: “The Governor’s paltry handout to Philadelphia ensures that our children will live yet another year without adequate librarians, counselors, nurses, and teaching staff.  It’s another year of parents scrambling for resources, paying for basic services in schools….”  Parents United points out that Pennsylvania provides more in grant funding for wealthy districts than basic aid for school districts like Philadelphia, where the majority of students live in poverty.  (According to the NY Times, 83 percent of Phildelphia’s current students are low income.)

Profiling Philadelphia’s current school superintendent, William Hite, Jr, earlier this week, the NY Times describes the enormous challenges he has faced in what may be “an unwinnable battle.”  The reporter quotes James H. Lytle, former deputy superintendent in Philadelphia and now a professor of educational leadership at the University of Pennsylvania, who rates “Dr. Hite’s chances of getting the money he wants at ‘close to zero’ because of a lack of support from state legislators and the Republican governor, Tom Corbett, who prefer to see an increase in charter schools.”  Lytle comments: “You could make the reasonable argument that the district is being completely deconstructed outside charter schools and perhaps for-profit schools.”

This blog has covered the crisis in Philadelphia here and here.