PA Permits Cigarette Tax, But Crisis in Philly Schools Drags On

After months of legislative dithering, both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature finally passed and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law enabling legislation for the School District of Philadelphia to levy a sin tax on its residents to raise money for the public schools.  The school district can levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to try to make up at least a bit for what the state has cut in recent years.  Of course, because car owners can drive to the suburbs or Delaware to purchase cigarettes, the poorest of the poor who do not own automobiles will pay the tax, which may not even come close to raising the revenue needed to run the school district.

In a scathing and prophetic September 29th editorial, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook commented on all this: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.” The Notebook blames the state for a wave of devastating cuts to education that has washed across many school districts in addition to Philadelphia: “More than one-fourth of districts were expected to cut extracurricular activities this year….  Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions—on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years…  A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction….  Something is seriously wrong with this picture.  Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world.  But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted.”

The reasons are complex.  Corbett and the legislature have cut state funding—a reduction of $1,300-per-pupil to Philadelphia in 2011 alone.  The state dismantled its school funding distribution formula. “Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks…” and “Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.”  Like other states Pennsylvania relies on local property taxes to fund schools: “So even within the same county there are often obscene inequities in resources—Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.”

Amplifying the history behind such an editorial, this week The Nation magazine has published a fascinating and detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel Denvir has, for several years now, covered the Philadelphia schools for the Philadelphia City Paper.  His new piece in The Nation is: How to Destroy a Public-School System, part of an October 13 special issue of the magazine on public education.

Denvir begins with the story of parents organizing last spring to prevent the charter school takeover of their neighborhood Steel Elementary School by the no-excuses Mastery Charter Schools.  After Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown organized to block the charter takeover, the parents at Steel eventually voted 121-55 to keep Steel a public school—and the parents’ vote was narrowly accepted by those running the district.  The organizing effort was, according to Denvir, “among the few successful coordinated efforts by parents and teachers to block charter expansion in Philadelphia.  They constituted a pivotal moment in a struggle involving Corbett, well-funded education reformers bent on privatizing public schools, a battered teachers union, and students and parents attempting to navigate a school system in which fiscal crisis has become the only constant.”

Denvir traces the crisis back to the 1950s, when the mayor, Richardson Dilworth said Philadelphia was being “choked by the ‘white noose’ of the suburbs.”  Denvir remembers school superintendent David Hornbeck’s filing of a civil rights lawsuit in 1998 that alleged “state funding discriminated against nonwhite students.”   The legislature responded in 2001 with a state takeover of the district, barred the teachers union in Philadelphia from striking, and turned the district over to Edison Schools, a private educational management company—an experiment Denvir reports was recognized as a failure by 2007.  Then in 2010 came Governor Corbett, “his political network heavily populated by advocates for private-sector education reform… Corbett cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget…. He also expanded Pennsylvania’s ‘voucher lite’ programs, popular among conservatives, which provide corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.”  Corbett cut more in subsequent budgets, telling legislators, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” Funding from the William Penn Foundation brought in the Boston Consulting Group to issue a report that “called for closing sixty-four schools, gutting the central office staff, privatizing blue-collar jobs… and carving up the remaining schools into ‘achievement networks’ potentially managed by private third parties.”  Eventually in the spring of 2013, the number of schools closed was reduced to twenty-four—still a significant loss of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters has continued.

Denvir brings his history to last school year: “In 2013-14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent.  The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides.  The year began with a single counselor assigned to nearly 3,000 students…”    In the summer of 2014, the crisis continued: “In June, Philadelphia’s schools confronted yet another budget crisis.  In response, Corbett and Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the State House of Representatives, demanded that the city’s legislative delegation vote to weaken public-employee pensions.  The prize in return?  Simply allowing the city to raise raise its cigarette tax in order to boost school funding.”

We have come full circle to the diagnosis offered this week by the editors of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing… Something is seriously wrong with this picture.”

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.

Philly Parent Activist: How Portfolio School Reform Is Destroying the School District

Last week this blog reviewed the concept of “portfolio school reform” as it is being practiced in Chicago, New York City, and Newark.  It is a theory promoted actively by the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington, which posts a map of the school districts identified formally as its network of portfolio school districts.

Last week’s post on this blog did not cover one school district prominent on the Center’s map, a district where controversy over portfolio school reform is roiling—Philadelphia.  The controversy spilled over this month into a panel discussion at the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which was holding its annual meeting in Philadelphia.  Local activists involved in the portfolio school reform debate had been invited to be part of AERA’s panel.

Last Friday in her Washington Post column, Valerie Strauss featured a guest column by Helen Gym, a Philadelphia parent activist who was part of that panel at AERA.  Gym describes portfolio school reform as it was defined on the panel by Mark Gleason, the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP), Philadelphia’s primary cheerleader and fund raiser for portfolio school reform.

Gleason’s definition is blunt, honest, and very clear: “So that’s what portfolio is fundamentally…. you keep dumping the losers, and over time you create a higher bar for what we expect of our schools.”

Dumping the losers!   Here is Gym’s description of the response at the AERA conference: “The audience of researchers, according to attendees I spoke with, expressed visible dissent  A group confronted Gleason afterword about everything from the ‘losers’ framework to his dismissal of funding as a major source of the district’s struggles.  The crude phrasing even made Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite recoil, and Hite quickly distanced himself from Gleason’s remarks.  But no matter how uncomfortable Hite and others felt about Gleason’s words, they aptly characterize the portfolio model mentality.”

Gym continues by describing what she, a parent of children in the School District of Philadelphia, sees as the reality today in Philadelphia: “Since the 2001 state takeover, the portfolio model approach has had us pursuing all manner of negligent schemes from for-profit EMOs (education management organizations) to unfettered charter expansion and online cyber schools.  In the last few years—fueled in part by ‘philanthropic’ venture capitalists like PSP—this reckless experimentation has increased dramatically, with enormous consequences for district-managed public schools.  Since 2011, the district has closed down 30 public schools and seen its charter population increase by 50 percent.  Today, Philadelphia’s charter population (86 schools and 67,00-plus students) makes up 35 percent of the total student body at a cost of $700 million annually—and there’s no end in sight.”

Philadelphia’s imposition of portfolio school reform has been compounded by a financial crisis, covered in this blog, due to drastic funding cuts from the state of Pennsylvania.  While Gym does not detail the state funding cuts that have, along with the move to charterize, catastrophically undermined Philadelphia’s traditional public schools, she does accurately describe the consequences: huge classes, 100 split-grade classes in elementary school, closing school libraries, making nurses responsible for serving several schools, and slashing 4,220 district staff, many of them teachers and counselors.

Questioning Gleason’s definition of portfolio school reform, “dumping the losers,” Gym wonders, “Are our school being set up to look like ‘losers’?”  I urge you to read Gym’s column because it does such a good job of connecting the dots.

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.