Try telling Owen Tuleya that money doesn’t matter.
For the first weeks of school, the 8-year-old at Cook-Wissahickon Elementary in Roxborough was happy and thriving in 3rd grade. His teachers were great, he had many friends, and he got a lot of attention because there were fewer than 20 students in his class.
Then on Friday, Oct. 25, out of the blue, parents were notified that changes were coming. The following Monday, more than six weeks after school started, Owen was moved to a class with 24 4th graders and seven other 3rd graders – a “split class.”
His reaction, said his mom, Stefanie, was bewilderment. Why was this happening? He missed his 3rd-grade friends. He couldn’t even eat with them in the lunchroom. They took away his 3rd-grade books and gave him 4th-grade books. And there were 31 other students vying for the teacher’s attention.
While Owen did his best to adjust, “there was definitely some anxiety about being in a whole new class,” said his mom.
How do you explain a disruption caused by budget cuts to a 3rd grader?
Do you say that the School District had to find two teachers for another school because there were more students there than the grown-ups had expected? And that the District didn’t have enough money to hire more teachers for the other school, and so took away two of Cook-Wissahickon’s?
Sometimes students from different grades are put in the same classroom because it can be an effective learning strategy, but that wasn’t the situation here.
Superintendent William Hite acknowledged as much when Stefanie Tuleya sought answers from the School Reform Commission in November.
“This is being done out of necessity,” he said. “Without the training and support to have split classes, we have split classes.”
The issue of whether money matters to educational attainment and school district success has long divided politicians, activists, policymakers, and researchers.
Some argue that there is a limited correlation between the amount of revenue a district has to spend and overall achievement, and so funding gaps between richer and poorer districts should not be a focus. Others counter that districts with many needs cannot be expected to improve if they lack the funds to deliver adequate services.
“Money is not the only thing needed to make a school great,” Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education adviser, told City Council at a November hearing. “But funding that is just enough so that it’s safe to open schools should be no one’s goal.”
Shorr was trying to explain to skeptical Council members that the District needed more revenue to adequately educate students. She spoke of 12th graders who couldn’t get transcripts to include in college applications because of the lack of counselors.
“When I read in the paper that a suburban school has a sushi chef on Wednesdays and I visit a school that has to deny its students access to new computers and books for lack of funding, I can’t but think there is a better way for the state to ensure fair and equitable funding for all its students,” said Shorr.
Matthew Stanski, the District’s chief financial officer, told Council flatly that the District didn’t have enough money to do its job.
Stanski said that the District was spending about $11,000 per pupil in the classroom. Despite having a student population that is more than 80 percent low income and enrolling about a quarter of the state’s English language learners, Philadelphia spends less than the state median per pupil.
“I cannot overstate the role of adequate funding in ensuring a quality education,” he said.
But the Council members present mostly were not buying it. Some said $11,000 per child was quite a bit of money, but that the District was still doing a poor job. They wondered about throwing good money after bad.
“I’ve been meeting with people, and they don’t see how the money is reflected in the classroom,” said Councilwoman Jannie Blackwell, noting the large numbers of students in her West Philadelphia district who graduate unable to read or do math proficiently – or don’t graduate at all. “How are we spending all this money and not educating our children?”
Blackwell said, “We’re asked to do the heavy lifting, to come up with the money needed when we don’t know how money impacts learning. We really would like more clarity on that issue.”
If only that were easy to demonstrate.
Money doesn’t follow need
While we debate whether money matters, there is no doubt that money plays a big part in education policy. Where a family can afford to live largely determines how much is spent on a student’s education. There are wealthier districts and poorer ones, and this disparity is accepted. Money matters to better-off families; when they can afford to, they generally move to better-off school districts.
As a result, money does not follow need.
Andreas Schleicher, an education adviser to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, said that one reason the United States doesn’t get more bang for its buck educationally is that it spends too much in wealthier areas and not enough in poor ones.
“The U.S. is one of the few [countries] that invests in a regressive way. Children who need [public funding] the most get the least of it,” Schleicher said in the report.
State aid to schools is meant to offset disparities in local wealth.
But the state aid rarely makes up the whole difference, and how it should be raised and distributed is the subject of fierce political debate. More than 40 states, including Pennsylvania, have faced lawsuits challenging both the equity of how education dollars are spread among districts and whether poorer districts have adequate resources to meet their students’ needs.
In Pennsylvania, however, these lawsuits have gone nowhere. The courts here have ruled that education funding is a legislative, not a judicial, matter. Since poor, rural districts lost their case two decades ago, disparities in spending among districts in Pennsylvania have grown.
“The defining feature of public education in Southeastern Pennsylvania is a tremendous disparity in educational resources and outcomes,” said David Sciarra of the Education Law Center in New Jersey. Pennsylvania “has to put in place a stable, predictable, adequate means of funding public education. Otherwise, districts are in a constant state of crisis.”
Sciarra is behind similar lawsuits filed in New Jersey, where the outcome has been starkly different. There, the Supreme Court has been very specific in ordering the legislature to fully fund schools and to make sure that 31 of the state’s poorest districts receive more money – recognizing that they have greater needs. The court ordered preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
Pennsylvania made an attempt to address funding adequacy and put in place a predictable formula in 2008, during the administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell. A costing-out study commissioned by the Pennsylvania legislature determined that Philadelphia needed $5,000 more per student than it then had to adequately educate its students – or nearly $1 billion more a year. Statewide, the gap between what was needed and what was provided was upwards of $4 billion.
Rendell went about trying to increase the state’s share of education expenses to 50 percent – about the national average – and set a goal of reaching the adequacy level over a seven-year period. State aid increases to districts were doled out according to a formula that took into account several factors related to need, including special education, poverty, and learning English.