Huge Hole Remains in Philadelphia School Budget; Legislature Goes Home without Addressing Crisis

What happened yesterday in Philadelphia is not a sudden development; neither is it a surprise.  It is merely one more chapter in a tragedy that continues to unfold.  Earlier in the summer when the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a budget, leaders of both houses promised to add enabling legislation for Philadelphia to levy a local $2-per-pack cigarette tax to generate $81 million to close an enormous gap in the school district’s budget for the school year set to begin on September 8, 2014, just a month from now.  The legislature dithered; House and Senate passed separate bills to enable the local cigarette tax; and then—just last week—the legislature went home for its August break without reconciling the bills.  Law makers are not scheduled to return to Harrisburg until mid-September.

Yesterday, Governor Tom Corbett, no friend to Philadelphia’s schools, arrived in Philadelphia with a promise to advance the School District of Philadelphia $265 million.  This is not extra money; it is merely an early payment of funds the district would receive anyway from the state later in the school year.  Corbett proposed the cash advance as a way to permit school to open and to alleviate the need for the school district to borrow, thereby saving the district $4 – $5 million in borrowing costs.

Superintendent William Hite (who reports to the School Reform Commission that is appointed by the state, as Philadelphia schools are under state control) is understandably reluctant to open school with a gaping hole in the district’s budget until he knows the cigarette tax has received state approval. And even members of the state appointed School Reform Commission earlier this summer stood with Hite and against Corbett to advocate for the rights and safety of the children.  (Of course even if Philadelphia gets the right to levy the cigarette tax, there is no guarantee it will generate the hoped-for $80 million to support the public schools.)

Hite says that if the legislature hasn’t reached some agreement by August 15, he will have to lay off 1,300 more staff and raise class size to 41 students per teacher.  In the first chapter of the ongoing Philadelphia school budget catastrophe, in the spring of 2013, the school district closed 24 schools and laid off 4,000 teachers and other staff.  The cuts Hite says he is forced to contemplate by the current crisis would be on top of the 2013 cuts, and he is unsure he can sufficiently staff and safely open school at all on September 8 without the guarantee of a secure revenue stream in the form of the cigarette tax.

There is, of course, politics involved in all this.  At his press conference, Corbett added, as he always does, that the teachers union ought to make major concessions.   Yesterday Kevin McCorry, writing for Newsworks, Philadelphia, reported that Corbett says legislators will be more sympathetic to Philadelphia’s needs if the union makes concessions in work rules and health care, and accepts a “salary cut of 5-13 percent.”

This blog reported earlier in the summer on a commentary published by David Sciarra of the Education Law Center.  Sciarra does not believe the problem rests with the teachers union.  He describes “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 blames the state: “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.”

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. 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. Pennsylvania lacks a working formula to distribute funds to local school districts according to need.  The state does not adequately equalize access to education by directing sufficient funding to school districts like Philadelphia that must address the needs of masses of children living in concentrated urban poverty.  Also the School Reform Commission is  intent on its “portfolio school reform” plan based on closing traditional public schools and opening charters, but in Pennsylvania, the costs for charters are subtracted from the budgets of local school districts without adequate state reimbursement.  Bill Hangley Jr., writing for the Philadelphia School Notebook, summarizes Philadelphia’s plight that has continued for well over a decade: “a state takeover and a host of experiments in private management and school choice, and system-wide inequities [that] persist to this day.”

Hangley interviews civil rights lawyer Michael Churchill, who has tracked problems in the School District of Philadelphia for four decades as an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.  Here is Churchill’s assessment: “At this point, there’s not any chance for improvement.  The superintendent said he needed [over] $400 million to continue improving things, and about $216 million just to get back to last year’s level.  We still have not even gotten the full $216 million.”  “The charter funding formula is absolutely crazy, one of the worst in the country.  But that’s small potatoes compared to our single biggest problem—the state puts in too small a share of funding.  Pennsylvania appropriates about 35 percent of the cost of public education. Pennsylvania needs to get up to about 50 percent of the cost of education.  And while they’re figuring that out, they need to calculate real costs—like the cost of educating kids in poverty.  When you do that, you’ll take care of the problems. We know the solutions. It’s not a mystery. What’s lacking is political will.”