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.”

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Two Election Results That Hinged on Support for Public Education and School Teachers

There wasn’t much for progressive supporters of public schooling to be pleased about in the results of Tuesday’s election.  In two races, however, public education became the pivotal issue, and in both, the candidate who won had shaped the campaign around support for public education and public school teachers.

Tom Corbett will be remembered as the governor committed to starving the poorest of Pennsylvania’s school districts—most notably the state’s largest school district in Philadelphia but also places like Allentown and Reading.  This blog has extensively covered the tragedy in Philadelphia, where Corbett’s appointed School Reform Commission recently tried to cancel the teachers’ contract (The case is currently under appeal.) after the legislature allowed the district to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax instead of raising the state’s contribution back to where it was before the recession in 2008 or equalizing school funding.

Here is the analysis of  Thomas Fitzgerald and Angela Couloumbis, writers for the Philadelphia Inquirer:  “In January 2011, with the effects of the recession lingering, the new Pennsylvania governor needed to find billions of dollars in his first budget.  He had promised not to raise taxes, though. So he cut.  State funding for public education took a $1 billion whack, amid the expiration of federal stimulus money. That may have sealed Gov. Corbett’s fate, according to political analysts sifting the wreckage of the Republican’s historic loss. ‘Signing the Grover Norquist pledge ruined Corbett, just killed him,’ said Democratic media strategist Neil Oxman, referring to the Washington antitax activist who is influential in the GOP.  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 a race where the Philadelphia school funding crisis, the state’s cuts to public education overall, and Corbett’s attempt to blame Philadelphia’s teachers and save money by cancelling their contract were extensively covered by the press, Corbett secured only 45 percent of the vote on Tuesday, compared to Democrat Tom Wolf’s 55 percent.

Then there was the race none of us would have expected to learn anything about—the battle between incumbent and former high school biology teacher Tom Torlakson and darling of the plutocrats, Marshall Tuck for state superintendent of public instruction in California.  Lindsey Layton of the Washington Post reported on Monday that recent spending in what is a traditionally quiet contest had brought the expenditure total in 2014 up to $30 million, three times more than was spent in the race for governor of California. After Torlakson’s victory,  Layton analyzed the result: “In a white-hot battle in California that is considered a proxy fight for deep national divisions in the Democratic Party over education, Tom Torlakson was narrowly reelected as the state’s schools superintendent, beating back Marshall Tuck by a margin of 52 percent to 48 percent.  The $30 million downballot contest generated three times as much spending as the race for governor, with money pouring in from around the country.  Torlakson was heavily supported by teachers unions while Tuck had the backing of billionaire philanthropists such as former New York mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of Apple founder Steve Jobs.”  This blog covered spending in the race for California state superintendent here.

The Vergara lawsuit against job protections for school teachers became the primary issue in this race.  A judge found for the plaintiffs and against due process for teachers early in the summer, and Torlakson, as state superintendent, filed one of the appeals in the case.  Tuck said he would cancel the appeal, if elected.  Analyzing Torlakson’s victory for the Sacramento Bee, Alexei Kosell writes: “Much of the debate centered on Vergara v. California, a lawsuit alleging that the state’s teacher tenure and dismissal laws protect bad teachers and disproportionately deprive low-income and minority students of a quality education.  Tuck built his campaign on the case, galvanizing supporters after a judge declared the policies unconstitutional in June.  He wielded the ruling against Torlakson like a bludgeon, spending most of his public appearances urging California to reject the ‘status quo’ and get behind the decision.  His position made Tuck an enemy of the California Teachers Association, which also opposes other policy changes Tuck advocated, such as using student test scores in teacher evaluations.”

The fact that former CNN anchor Campbell Brown has launched a new organization, Partners for Educational Justice, to attack due process rights for teachers and to file Vergara-type lawsuits across the states adds to the national implications of the recent Tuck-Torlakson race in California.  The Washington Post‘s Layton explains the nationwide implications of the race: “Their differences symbolized the national tensions within the Democratic Party over the best way to educate kids.  Torlakson pushed for more investment in public schools, does not believe teachers should be judged by student test scores, and said charter schools need more oversight.  Tuck wants to expand public charter schools, argued for more accountability for teachers and said California’s teacher tenure laws are an obstacle to improving schools.”

In California, after absorbing the contents of 30 million dollars’ worth of brochures and TV ads and after listening to both candidates over many months, the voters chose Tom Torlakson, the incumbent and the supporter of public education and public school teachers.

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.”