Deep Structural Financial Crisis Continues in School District of Philadelphia

Did you watch the puff pieces John Merrow put together for the News Hour on PBS for the past two evenings? They were about Philadelphia—the first about Science Leadership Academy, a collaboration between the School District of Philadelphia and the Franklin Institute and a highly selective school where students must submit applications to be accepted—and the second about several schools with open enrollment that, like the Science Leadership Academy, feature project-based learning.  According to Merrow’s report, the school district is opening such institutions to compete with charter schools.  The series of reports made the future of public education in Philadelphia look bright.

The reality is far more sober.  This blog has covered the ongoing financial crisis here and here.  In Philadelphia, Dale Mezzacappa just published a post-election update about the continuation of the dire financial crisis, a subject glossed over in Merrow’s report for PBS.  According to Mezzacappa, “The District is looking at another shortfall next year.  Its best hope is that Gov.-elect Tom Wolf can make good his promise to increase state education spending and create a fairer way to distribute aid…  It is still unclear whether Wolf can fulfill his promise to raise taxes to send to school districts and convince the legislature to enact a fairer education funding formula.  Wolf will be facing a more Republican General Assembly than Gov. Corbett, whom he defeated, and one that just elected more conservative leadership.  Wolf won in part because inadequate education funding under Corbett became a statewide issue. Six districts outside Philadelphia, along with advocacy groups and parents, filed a lawsuit Nov. 10 against the state for failing to provide each child with a constitutionally mandated ‘thorough and efficient’ education.”

Mezzacappa continues, “Newly enacted cigarette and sales taxes burden only Philadelphians, and they are still not enough.”  But as the Merrow report for PBS explained, 40 additional charters are making application to open.  Why is a charter expansion being contemplated when the school district is broke and Pennsylvania, having cancelled the reimbursement it used to provide to school districts when charters expand, now subtracts costs for students leaving for charters from the local school district’s budget?  Mezzacappa explains: “In authorizing the city to impose a $2-a-pack cigarette tax to raise school revenues, the legislature ordered the SRC (state School Reform Commission that serves in place of a locally elected school board) to reopen the charter pipeline and gave rejected hopefuls the right to a state appeal… Since 2011, charter costs have climbed from 18 percent to 31 percent of the District’s budget.”

Mezzacappa concludes: “Despite the new funding streams (local cigarette and sales taxes), the District’s deficit for 2015-16 is projected at $71 million without drastic reductions in ongoing personnel costs… Due to the fiscal chaos, Fitch Ratings in October downgraded the District’s bond rating.”

Although John Merrow’s programs about quality teaching and project-based learning are inspiring, the School District of Philadelphia cannot be saved by isolated programming, however innovative.  The school funding crisis in Pennsylvania is structural. The state has cut taxes and reduced its public education budget by $1 billion since Governor Tom Corbett was elected four years ago.  As  Philadelphia Inquirer political analysts commented after Corbett’s defeat in November: “Corbett could have levied a severance tax on natural gas, or moved money from other programs to soften the blow. He did not, while he reduced business taxes an estimated $400 million and placed more than $600 million in reserve.”

In Philly, Governor Tom Corbett’s School Reform Commission Cancels Teachers’ Contract

You might have missed this news.  It wasn’t covered extensively outside Philadelphia.  Early Monday morning at a meeting that had been announced publicly with only a small notice in the newspaper, Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission—Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett’s state “oversight” body, a sort of stand-in for a locally elected school board—summarily cancelled the school district’s contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

The purpose of the cancellation was, of course, to free up enough money for the School District of Philadelphia to operate through this school year.  It is now admitted that the local $2-per-pack tax on cigarettes—that the state legislature finally permitted Philadelphia to levy—won’t yield as much money as had been hoped.

The Philadelphia Public School Notebook explains: “At a special meeting that was barely publicized until hours before its 9:30 A.M. start, with no public testimony before acting, the School Reform Commission unanimously voted to cancel the contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in order to rework its health-care provisions.”  The School Reform Commission explained that by revoking the union contract, it won’t cut salaries but will require teachers to contribute to their health care premiums.  According to the Notebook, “The SRC will also stop underwriting the union’s Health and Welfare Fund, which provides prescription, dental, vision and other benefits to active members and retirees.”  Benefits for retirees will be ended entirely.

According to the Notebook, “The SRC has already ignored provisions of the expired contract.  In summer 2013 it stopped paying teachers for so-called ‘step’ and ‘lane’ increases, which accrue automatically based on experience and advanced degrees earned.”

Chairman of the School Reform Commission, William Green and the school district’s Superintendent William Hite are described by the Philadelphia Inquirer as saying that the cancellation of the contract is necessary so that money can be used to re-hire enough teachers to reduce class size and bring back key staff such as counselors and school nurses.  Hite commented: “But we still don’t have sufficient resources in order to educate our children.  This allows us to save millions of dollars that we can return to schools very quickly.”  In a follow-up article by the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Hite is quoted: “I’ve said over and over again, ‘We don’t pay them enough.’ But I’ve also said, given the fiscal environment in which we are facing, we all have to share in the sacrifice….”

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the School Reform Commission is not entirely sure that the law passed in 1998 by which the state seized control of the school district from the local school board permits the abrogation of the legal contract with the teachers union: “The district will immediately go to court to affirm the SRC’s action, filing a motion for declaratory judgement with the Pennsylvania Department of Education as co-plaintiff.”  The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will seek an injunction to block the School Reform Commission’s cancellation of the contract.

When Governor Tom Corbett and members of his appointed School Reform Commission demand “shared sacrifice” from Philadelphia’s teachers, one has to step back to consider what has really been going on in Pennsylvania.  In 2011, Corbett, a strong believer in low taxes, slashed over $1 billion out of the state’s education budget.  The school funding formula that directed at least some additional money to school districts like Philadelphia with overwhelming family poverty was scrapped.  Charter schools in Pennsylvania are known to be poorly regulated in state law, and they also take money directly out of local school district budgets.  Philadelphia is host to more charter schools than any other school district in the state.  All this has created a financial crisis that has shifted the burden for serving Philadelphia’s children almost entirely onto the shoulders of classroom teachers and building principals.  Support services of all sorts have not only been reduced; in many schools they have been eliminated.

In yesterday’s coverage, the Notebook reported: “Class size has grown.  Northeast High started off the year with a science class with 62 students and Central with an English class of 50.  Students have had to raise money themselves to put on a play, print a newspaper, or run an after school club.  Most schools have art or music instruction, but few have both.  Parents donate copy paper.”

This blog has extensively covered the school funding crisis Governor Corbett and the legislature have created.  To demonstrate the range of concerns, I’ll provide not mere links but also the dates and titles of the posts: PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Drags On, October 1, 2014; Schools Open in Philadelphia, But Crisis Drags On, September 16, 2014;  Swarthmore Profs Say Philly Schools Lack Needed Money: PA Funding Process Flawed, August 13, 2014;  Huge Hole Remains in Philadelphia School Budget; Legislature Goes Home without Addressing Crisis, August 7, 2014;  Textbook Budgets and Book Distribution Tightly Connected with Standardized Test Scores, July 16, 2014;  Pennsylvania Budget Fails to Provide for Desperate Education Needs of Philadelphia’s Children, July 1, 2014;  Refusing to Educate Other People’s Children: Woes Continue in Philadelphia, June 23, 2014;  Unequal Opportunity the Norm: Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, May 21, 2014;  Philly Parent Activist: How Portfolio School Reform Is Destroying the School District, April 14, 2014;  Lacking Fair Basic Aid Plan, Pennsylvania Continues to Starve Philly Schools, February 13, 2014;  and How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter, November 30, 2013.

We are a culture that values people we consider “good sports,” especially when they are women. By abrogating a legal contract with Philadelphia’s teachers, Governor Corbett and his appointed overseers of the Philadelphia schools are implying that school teachers should be good sports and return to the old model—the schoolmarm who boards with a local family and stays in the spare bedroom and who gives up her working life when she herself has a family. It is a model that imagines the personal sacrifice and devotion of well-intentioned young women.  It is also a model from the nineteenth century.

Today we know that teachers’ salaries for men and women are needed to support their families.  We require teachers to be well-trained professionals who earn step increases by furthering their own expertise over the years.  We no longer consider them to be temporary babysitters who give a few years to school children but are really on their way to marriage and motherhood or to a more remunerative “real” profession later.  Or do we?   The calls by people like Governor Tom Corbett for shared sacrifice and appeals to the image of the devoted nineteenth century schoolmarm are especially cynical these days. Really in Pennsylvania and across the country, what politicians expect is for teachers to sacrifice so that the rest of us can have more tax cuts.