There’s still an appalling gap between the resources available in Philadelphia city schools and what’s offered students when you cross the city line into more affluent suburbs. That’s because, in Pennsylvania, schools are still largely funded by property taxes. Districts with a strong tax base have more to spend on the best educators, facilities, and technology.
For a whole decade though, Philadelphia’s budget was growing faster than inflation, providing opportunities for new initiatives. We’ve seen more teachers, counselors and support personnel hired, more robust interventions in low-performing schools, and expansion of services to families. And we’ve seen student achievement improve.
Now all signs point to the fact that this run of good fortune is coming to an end – or more accurately, to a cliff.
A quarter of a billion dollars in federal stimulus funds that have been available to the School District for the past two years will be gone next year. With the Tea Party movement on the rise nationally, it’s unlikely that there will be major new federal spending initiatives like the 2009 stimulus to replace them.
The news gets worse. Some big pension bills are coming due. The stagnant economy is holding down tax revenues. The governor from Philadelphia who has prioritized public education funding is leaving office – and the frontrunner to replace him opposes all tax increases. As a result, Pennsylvania may be in for sweeping school spending cuts as have just come to pass in New Jersey.
By spring, the District could face a need to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from next year’s budget. A sober discussion of contingencies is in order.
District staff will be developing a menu of options for the School Reform Commission. But to do the least harm, we need detailed, honest assessments of these District initiatives and whether they are showing benefits. Those closest to the work – educators, parents, and students – must be given a chance to share their views.
For instance, how many students actually attended summer school and what evidence is there of academic gains? Have the additional counselors, parent ombudsmen, and other new programs had a measurable impact? Are there schools that could be closed without devastating their communities?
Advocacy for fair treatment of Philadelphia and other chronically underfunded districts is more urgent than ever. Pennsylvania’s school funding formula is finally based on need; state officials must be persuaded that cuts should also be based on need, rather than across the board.
More than ever, it is important for District staff and the SRC to be transparent and forthcoming about the realities of its budget. Building public confidence that money is being spent wisely will go a long way toward strengthening the District’s advocacy efforts.