A crowd of some 100 parents, teachers, principals, and education activists braved a brutal rainstorm on April 30 to wage what amounted to a two-hour attack on the School Reform Commission, which was considering the proposed bare-bones budget for the next school year.
Earlier that day and a block away, an 11th grader at Benjamin Franklin High School named Jeremy Rodriguez had been fighting his own battle with the current school budget.
“Some days the teachers just don’t have the energy … they’ll give us a paper and we’ll teach ourselves,” said Rodriguez, 17. “There’s nothing new in the school. … All the books are ripped up.”
And with students from two recently closed high schools now attending, he said, “Everywhere you walk, you’re bumping into somebody." Some classrooms are so crowded with desks, he said, that “it’s hard to walk to the front.”
Twenty years ago, when the Notebook was founded, Rodriguez hadn’t been born and there was no such thing as the SRC. But the first edition headline, “Unfair state funding for schools challenged,” could have just as easily been written in 2014.
Philadelphia education advocates cite two underlying causes of the schools’ financial plight.
Pennsylvania trails 40 other states in what it contributes to basic education. A 2013 report by the Education Law Center gave the state’s share as 36 percent, putting Philadelphia at a disadvantage compared with wealthier districts that can raise more money through property taxes.
And there is no set formula for distributing state aid. The ELC report said Pennsylvania was “a national outlier,” one of only three states without an enrollment-based, transparent formula for distributing state education dollars.
This hasn’t always been the case. Between 1949 – the year the state school code was adopted – and 1991, the state had a funding formula. But since then, there has been none except between 2008 when one was established under Gov. Rendell and 2011, when it was abandoned by his successor, Gov. Corbett.
This may change, but how soon and how much is open to debate.
On May 2, the state House passed a bill, introduced by Rep. Bernie O’Neill (R., Bucks) and supported by the Corbett administration, to set up a bipartisan commission to make recommendations on a new funding formula for the commonwealth.
The initiative “will help us ensure our schools have the ability to provide a quality education for all of our students with the goal of more fairly distributing our state dollars for basic education,” O’Neill said in introducing the bill.
But questions remain about how quickly the commission will act and how far it will go. Some Philadelphia legislators called the bill unnecessary.
“A waste of time,” said Rep. Dwight Evans, a Democrat. “You don’t need a commission. Like the Nike commercial says, ‘Just do it.’”
Democratic Sen. Vincent Hughes agreed. “We need state lawmakers to stop talking about funding and actually back up these discussions with a commitment of resources,” said a Hughes spokesman.
Only nine other states (including New Jersey) depend more on local property taxes than Pennsylvania, which puts less wealthy school districts such as Philadelphia at a disadvantage.
A report just released by the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center said that school districts like Philadelphia with large numbers of poor students have been hurt disproportionately by cuts in education funding since Corbett took office.
The impact on students like Rodriguez goes beyond crowded classrooms, torn books and exhausted teachers. Some of his classmates, he said, are so discouraged by the overall atmosphere that they show up only for breakfast and lunch and skip the rest of the day.
In an interview with Education Week, Michael Casserly, executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, called Philadelphia “the most under-resourced urban school district in the nation.”
Casserly blamed the District’s financial problem on the lack of consistent state support that education advocates say could be provided by the revival of a funding formula.
The previous formula was based on a 2007 “costing-out study” by the Denver-based consulting firm of Augenblick, Palaich and Associates. It started with the question regularly asked by such studies: “How much money would it take to get an average student in an average school district to meet state standards?”
There are, of course, no “average” school districts or students, which is where a weighted formula comes in.
It generally costs more to educate students who are in poverty, are English language learners, or have disabilities. Small school districts tend to have higher per-pupil costs. So do districts in areas with a high cost of living.
Some states’ formulas take into account the difference among districts’ wealth by measuring “tax effort” – how hard a district is trying to raise local funds, given its economic condition.
All told, the costing-out study indicated that Pennsylvania’s public education system was underfunded by more than $4 billion.
“Districts with higher wealth and lower student needs spend more per student than lower-wealth districts with higher student needs,” the study concluded. “On average, the higher wealth districts can do this while still making a lower tax effort than other districts.”
Lori Shorr, Mayor Nutter’s chief education officer, is of two minds as far as the idea of a commission.
“Are they serious about this, or is it a delaying tactic?” she asked. “I don’t know. Some days I think it’s one, some days I think it’s the other.
“If they’re going to start from scratch, it’s a two or three-year process, and that disturbs me. But if they don’t try to reinvent the wheel … you can get it done in a year.”
“Right now, there’s no transparency,” she added. “You can’t track stuff. With a real formula, it would be easier.”
Until now, said Ron Cowell, a former legislator who is president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg, the lack of a formula is the result of “an absence of will on the part of the General Assembly and governors. State policymakers don’t want to entertain the question of raising revenues.
“They’d much rather operate in a system where they arbitrarily get to decide how much will be distributed. … It gives them the luxury of having no obligation.”
Cowell also noted that unlike some other states, the courts in Pennsylvania have refused to step into the issue of basic education funding, calling it strictly a matter for the General Assembly.
Two organizations – the Education Law Center and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia – have said they will try legal action again, charging that the current funding system violates the state constitution’s guarantee of a “thorough and efficient system of public education.” They are hopeful that increased emphasis on statewide standards will help them make their case, given the concern that many students will fall short of meeting them.
Reasons for optimism
Regardless of the outcome of a lawsuit, Brett Schaeffer, ELC communications director, said he was cautiously optimistic about the possibilities of the commission, based on the work of a similar commission on special education funding.
That commission came up with a report last December, seven months after Corbett signed legislation authorizing it, and bills to approve a new formula were before both houses in early May.
But Schaeffer noted that “you can have a great formula, but if it only affects a tiny pot of money, it won’t have much impact. … You’re still going to need the General Assembly.”
On that count, Donna Cooper, executive director of the child advocacy group Public Citizens for Children and Youth, was optimistic: Polling data show increasing support for funding basic education.
“I’ve never seen this level of excitement before,” Cooper said, including business leaders and senior citizens without children in the public school system.
“Older people are nervous about America’s standing in the world,” she said. “And people are very concerned about teacher layoffs.”
Shorr is also hopeful that the legislature is becoming aware of the changing educational landscape, not just in Philadelphia.
“When you move to a standards-driven educational model,” she said, “then you have to be willing to fund [the schools] to get them to that standard.”
But while a formula could eventually help solve the District’s financial problems, Shorr is aware that it will be too late for 11th graders like Jeremy Rodriguez. She put it bluntly.
“We need more money now.”