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.”