Philadelphia: Ideologues Press On to Expand Charters Despite Deepening PA Budget Crisis

The state of Pennsylvania is now more than 100 days beyond its June 30 budget deadline.  Last week the Republican dominated Pennsylvania House of Representatives rejected tax increases proposed by the state’s new Democratic governor, Tom Wolf.  The Philadelphia Inquirer reported, “In a major blow to Gov. Wolf’s agenda, the state House on Wednesday soundly rejected his plan to increase funding for Pennsylvania schools through tax hikes, stirring deeper uncertainty about how or when the state’s 99-day budget impasse would end.  The measure, which sought to raise the personal income tax and impose a new levy on natural gas drilling, was defeated, 127-73.  Republicans were united against it; nine Democrats broke ranks to join them.  The proposal needed 102 votes to pass.”

A privately published research report from Wells Fargo noted that, “The continuing budget impasse for Illinois and Pennsylvania is playing out negatively for education in these states… The timing of state revenues is particularly challenging for education, as K-12 education and higher education have already started the new academic year… Pennsylvania State Auditor Eugene DePasquale noted that the budget stalemate is forcing 17 school districts and two intermediate units to borrow…  Many of the schools are drawing down reserve funds.”

A lawsuit has been filed by plaintiffs across the state declaring that the state’s school funding system fails to meet the “thorough and efficient” and equal protection clauses in Pennsylvania’s state constitution.  The state’s Supreme Court is expected to hear this case early in 2016.

So, what’s the response in Philadelphia, a district that has continued to feel the impact of cuts to state funding under former governor, Tom Corbett, and a district that has in the past three years been forced to close 24 of its public schools and lay off thousands of teachers, counselors, librarians and school nurses?  Superintendent William Hite has proposed a new restructure for the School District of Philadelphia, a plan that will close public schools, open more charter schools, and according to the Inquirer, cost $20 million and affect 5,000 students. Hite and the state-appointed School Reform Commission are bent on extending the school-choice, “portfolio school reform” plan hatched several years ago by consultants from the Boston Consulting Group. “Hite also rejected the notion that the district was giving up on schools that have been deprived of key resources—such as full-time counselors, reading specialists, and other staff—and then labeled failing.  ‘There is no indication that ‘adding those particular positions was going to yield different outcomes,’ Hite said.”

Jerry Jordan of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is reported by the Inquirer to have called Hite’s plans, “astounding.” “I just found it absolutely stunning. These schools have been starved of resources; it’s test and punish, and then we’ll use the results to give schools away.”

Michael Tanenbaum, writing for Philly Voice, describes the district’s financial picture, something that was not discussed when Hite presented reform plans: “The cost of the proposed reforms was not stated by the District during its presentation Thursday.  State school funding has been frozen for the past three months amid the stalemate in Harrisburg.  According to the Pennsylvania Auditor General, the School District of Philadelphia has already borrowed $275 million to make up for the missing funds.”

What doesn’t seem to have been factored into Hite’s proposal to expand charters is the information from a report just a year ago by Philadelphia City Controller Alan Butkovitz about the threat posed to the financial viability of Philadelphia’s public schools by Pennsylvania’s flawed formula for funding charter schools. The Inquirer quotes Butkovitz: “(I)t seems reasonably clear that the geometric increase in the district’s budget line for charter schools has intensified its financial crisis.”  According to the Inquirer, Butkovitz’s  “report said the charter schools’ financial burden on the district worsened when the legislature eliminated the state charter-reimbursement program in 2011.  That change has cost the district at least $100 million in state revenue annually…  By state law, the district is required to pay charter schools before most other expenses, but the district has limited ability to control their enrollment… The report said the state formula used to calculate payments for special education students was another factor in charter school surpluses. The charter schools receive a flat rate for special education students, regardless of the type of services students need.  The report said charter schools generally have students with less-severe needs and on average spend 50 percent less on each special-ed student than the district does.”

Then there is the very recent investigation into the real estate scandal in several of Philadelphia’s charter schools.  An investigation last month posted at the joint website of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia News describes charter schools’ issuing bonds with very high interest rates to pay for exorbitantly expensive school buildings.  To cover their interest payments, several charters have sought rapidly to expand their enrollments and the tax dollars they can collect:  “Bonds—school debt sold to investors who are gradually paid back with interest—have become popular among charters because they allow lower borrowing costs than standard commercial loans… But the bonds that charter schools have tapped are still riskier and come with ‘junk’ ratings, carrying high interest rates… Today, an increasing number of charters are spending more of their budgets paying down debt than on actual instruction.”  One school is described as spending one third of its budget to occupy an expensive high-rise.  Michael Masch, the former schools finance chief of the School District of Philadelphia, is reported to be concerned about the consequences for the public school district: “Masch expressed concern that the boom in charter expansion could reach a point of implosion, as the demand to finance new (charter) school buildings is derived mainly by the transfer of students out of traditional district schools. ‘There are no new students coming into the Philadelphia school district and yet we’re building all these new schools. At some point, you’re going to have to start closing schools.’ Masch also said that because charters get guaranteed funding based on the number of students they will enroll, their budgets stayed relatively stable while the district made deep cuts in response to a shortage of state education dollars.”

Helen Gym, a candidate for the Philadelphia City Council, raised concerns about desperately needed support for the children in Philadelphia’s public schools in an op-ed last week in Philadelphia Magazine: “Never mind that just a few weeks ago Hite declared for a second time that charters in Philadelphia had reached a ‘saturation point.’ Never mind that money that is never available to restore basic services (to public schools) like nurses and counselors—or to end class sizes of 70 students per teacher—can somehow be found to expand charters year after year.  And never mind that the charter system itself is rapidly coming apart, with mid-year closures, bankruptcies and bad financing deals rocking an already uneven academic performance landscape. Ninety days into a state budget stalemate, our children attend schools with zero state funding for the current year and without the essential resources they need.  But school choice cheerleaders continue on a reckless tear to create two separate and unsustainable school systems….”

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.

How Philadelphia’s School Crisis Crushes Opportunity: Money and Stability Matter

“I had connections with teachers, it was relationships I built,” reports Othella Stanback, a Philadelphia high school senior whose high school was closed over the summer.  She knows no teachers at her new school well enough this fall to ask someone to write the recommendations she needs to apply for college.  In Dispatch from Philadelphia: The Brutal End of Public Education Julianne Hing reports for ColorLines on the meaning for students of the school closures in Philadelphia and the implications of similar problems in other struggling city school districts.

“Last year the governor slashed $1.1 billion from the state’s K-12 budget, cuts that particularly devastated Philadelphia’s state-controlled schools.  On the advice of a private consulting group, school officials announced that the district would need to close a stunning five dozen schools, and noted that the district ought to brace itself for dissolution… In the spring, the district closed 23 schools, including Stanback’s.  This fall, students went back to schools with skeletal staff after the district laid off 3,859 people, one of every five district employees.”

At Ben Franklin High School in Philadelphia where hundreds of students were transferred this year from closed schools, cuts in previous years have pared the curriculum, eliminating pre-Calculus, honors classes for ninth graders and an advanced writing class. Today the school is served by only one counselor.  In November, after Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett finally released an additional $45 million to the Philadelphia schools, 80 counselors were hired by the district, ensuring that every high school has one counselor.  The reporter notes: “Instability is the norm at Ben Franklin now.  Seven weeks into her last year in Philly public schools, Othella’s course schedule has been changed three times.”

Compounding the financial problems in Philadelphia is the imposition by the state imposed School Reform Commission of a “portfolio school reform” plan, prescribed by the Boston Consulting Group.  This is a plan designed with business-model “creative disruption” in mind—open and close schools including private charters in a continuing cycle, rewarding success and punishing failure.  But as the reporter notes, instability and loss are the way this looks to the students, and they are adolescents who desperately need stability in the institution on which they depend.

“Philadelphia is deep into worst-case scenario territory, but it’s not alone.  In cities like Cleveland, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Chicago—all of them with sizable black populations and long histories of entrenched poverty—lawmakers have responded to budget crises with cuts to public education and market-driven education reform agendas.  In a city like Philadelphia, which has the worst poverty rate of the ten largest U.S. cities, in which 39 percent of the city’s children live in poverty and in which blacks and Latinos are twice as likely as whites to be poor…. the consequences of the collapse of the city’s public school system are falling squarely on the backs of Stanback and her classmates.”