Fixing Philadelphia’s School Funding Problem Requires More than Ending this Year’s Deficit

Secretary of Education Harner’s recent recognition that contributions from the state as well as the teachers and the city are necessary in order to have a solution for the School District’s 2013-14 budget crisis is welcome news to parents and advocates for Philadelphia’s children, if it is enacted.   But it is not a long-run solution for either Philadelphia or the state.

It is indeed worth celebrating that he agrees that the City and District’s “strategy to close the budget gap is spot on.”  That strategy called for $120 million increase from the state, $60 million from the City, and $180 million in give-backs or slowdown in increases from the teachers’ union.  No prominent official in the state has previously endorsed the urgent need for state funding at this level. That should put additional pressure on City Council to come through with its $60 million share and for concessions from the PFT.

At the same time that Secretary Harner has shown flexibility from the state to fix this year’s shortfall, there was a short sightedness which spells continuing  long term problems not just for Philadelphia but for districts all across the state.  Any suggestion that with this fix “we will not be back at the drawing board next year amid another fiscal crisis”  fails to see that Philadelphia students are not being given the same resources as students in other districts to meet state proficiency standards, and that many districts are suffering from a shortfall in state  appropriations.

The easiest way to understand the problem is to remember that the state cut funding to Philadelphia for instructional needs in 2010-11 by $270 million. The proposed increase of $120 million, plus the $20 million already included in the Governor’s proposed budget, would restore only half of the cuts.   Statewide the Governor restored only $39 million last year and proposes only $90 million more this year from the $875 million cuts to all districts for instructional uses.  And much of this increase is now being siphoned off from districts by increased payments to charters and cyber-charter schools.  The Administration’s argument that state funding is now higher than before the loss of stimulus funds relies on $800 million increases in social security and pension payments to meet state mandated increases in those costs and makes no effort to replace the full Basic Education Funding lost by the districts. Alarmingly, it does not appear that the Administration sees any need for a long term plan to restore all of the instructional funds that were cut.

No one should think that solving this year’s funding crisis will “solve” how Pennsylvania funds schools, particularly given the low state appropriation to k-12 education. In the most recent data from the US Census Bureau Pennsylvania’s  state funding per capita was lower than every surrounding state, and the state’s share of the total cost of education was only 35.8%, making it the 8th lowest in the country.  As a consequence of insufficient state support, districts must rely on local property taxes, leaving  poor rural and urban districts with insufficient money to pay for necessities for all students to have a fair opportunity to meet state standards.

Making matters worse, the Corbett Administration’s cuts hit hardest districts with greater poverty and more students at risk, the very districts where education costs themost.    Philadelphia, for example, was cut $1,302 per student (21%)  and  York SD $1,135 (16%), while Radnor SD was cut only $39  per student (7%).  Even if the state and city were to fully fund the $180 million requested to close the deficit, with the union concessions each Philadelphia student will have $2,000 less spent on their education than the average spent by districts in the surrounding four counties, even though those districts have on average fewer students in poverty or who are English language learners.

As a consequence,  Pennsylvania is far from the “thorough and efficient system of public education” that its constitution requires.  Closing the $300 million deficit in Philadelphia will merely restore staffing to the inadequate levels of this last year with no tutoring or mentoring, inadequate counseling and support staff, larger  class sizes than appropriate and limited music and art.  Seventy-five percent of the districts in Pennsylvania in the last two years have cut instructional programs and other services to students. Meanwhile the state is raising the level of what it demands from students and schools by introducing Keystone Exams and a Common Core curriculum.

Until the state develops a plan to adopt a funding formula geared to provide a reasonable state share of the costs necessary for students to meet current standards, starting with a restoration of the nearly $900 million in cuts it made, it will not have the “long range solution” that the Secretary says is the goal. Until that happens,  high rates of student failure—with all the human tragedy and economic costs that entails–is the only predictable outcome.