Longtime advocates for Philadelphia’s school funding needs find themselves in an unfamiliar position in 2009. For a change, threats of devastating budget cuts are not looming.
“We’re going to see unprecedented amounts of money this year,” predicted Janis Risch, executive director of Good Schools Pennsylvania, a nonprofit group that focuses on fair funding statewide.
“There will be high stakes for schools to show what we can do with it.”
Despite the tanking economy, public education is getting a boost this year and next from the Obama administration’s economic stimulus package.
The stimulus funds may allow the governor and legislature to move forward on their commitment last year to implement an education funding formula that directs substantial new funds toward reaching “adequacy targets” for every school district.
Those targets were based on a statewide “costing-out” study that spelled out how much each school district would have to spend to adequately serve the needs of its students.
The precise financial benefits to Philadelphia from the deal reached in Washington will take months to sort out, though by late February some components had become clear.
Some congressional proposals had called for an even larger increase, but dedicated school construction funds were dropped from the final bill. While not bad, School District Chief Business Officer Michael Masch said, “it’s not going to be as good as we hoped it would be.”
The District is assured of getting sizeable increases in two federal funding streams, Title I funds for low-income students and funds for special education through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But the increase in state education aid, the District’s biggest funding source, will not be decided in Harrisburg until June.
In a February 18 interview, Masch expressed confidence that Governor Rendell’s proposal to increase basic education funding in Pennsylvania by $300 million (or 5.7 percent) this year can win passage, in light of a massive federal “stabilization” fund for states, aimed at averting school cuts and boosting state education spending.
Rendell’s planned increase would translate into $78 million more in state funding for Philadelphia schools next fall, on top of the roughly $70 million in new funds expected through Title I and IDEA. Other things being equal, this would represent an overall revenue boost of more than 5 percent for the perennially strapped Philadelphia schools.
But the stimulus law creates the possibility that an even bigger increase for school districts could emerge out of the state budget process.
Advocates here are pushing for that, while also calling on the state to fix its special education funding practices.
Last year’s ambitious six-year state funding plan did not address special education shortfalls.
However, it did project a second-year installment of $418 million rather than the $300 million Gov. Rendell proposed in his budget plan; the administration said it might now take a seventh year to reach the funding adequacy levels originally spelled out.
Josh Varon, staff attorney for the Education Law Center in Philadelphia, said his group is “focused on keeping those long-term elements in place – a funding formula rooted in the costing-out study.” He added that persuading legislators to provide a bigger increase this year will be a fight to convince them that money is being well used and accountability provisions of the funding plan are being followed.
“Groups like us have been trying to document the ways that monies have been spent,” he said. “We have found a lot of situations where money has made a big difference for schools.” He cited new student and family supports in the District’s 85 “empowerment schools” as having an impact – though “still a work in progress.”