Earlier this month, Gov. Wolf approved emergency funding to allow schools to remain open despite the ongoing budget impasse in Harrisburg. We are pleased that the governor is holding out for an agreement with legislative leaders that would result in a historic $350 million increase in basic education funding, which would include a $100 million restoration of funding to Philadelphia schools. This money would provide immediate relief to a cash-strapped district and would allow it to begin restoring cuts to nurses, counselors, and other vital services after years of bare-bones budgeting.
Yet those gains could be fleeting.
We are deeply troubled by language that has been inserted into the proposed Pennsylvania School Code that would enact sweeping changes to our state charter school policy. The changes would weaken the important role of school districts as charter authorizers to both manage responsible charter school growth and ensure that charter schools are providing a high-quality education to all kinds of students.
To be responsible stewards of taxpayer dollars, fiscally distressed school districts must balance requests for charter expansion with the fact that every new charter school costs districts money and siphons resources away from children who remain in traditional public schools. Indeed, the School District of Philadelphia would have to set aside $35 million of the $100 million in additional funding it would receive under the previously agreed-upon budget framework simply to cover additional payments to charter schools.
The proposed school code language contains provisions – in effect directed only at Philadelphia — requiring five schools a year to be designated for takeover by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. At least two, and possibly all five, would be converted to charter schools.
The irony, of course, is that Philadelphia's schools are already controlled by the state. There’s no evidence that this move will improve results – but it is sure to worsen the District’s structural deficit.
Additional language applicable to every school district in the state would weaken local districts’ ability to provide effective oversight of charter school operators to ensure that charter expansion occurs in sustainable ways and that charter operators deliver quality education to their students. It would enable charter schools across the state to amend the terms of their charters, create cross-district charter school networks, open new buildings, add new grades, and expand enrollment – all without the authorization of local school boards. It would also reduce accountability by allowing charter schools to go a full decade before having to renew their charters.
Taken together, the school code as written is a Trojan horse, destroying what it purports to save.
Our calculations show that these provisions could increase costs to districts so much that even with increased revenues, this budget deal could result in a net loss for the School District of Philadelphia in as little as 36 months.
Thus even as lawmakers in Harrisburg continue to complain that Philadelphia schools need to live within their means, they are pushing legislative language that would continue to burden the district with costly new mandates that only dig the District into a deeper financial hole.
At the same time, they fail to recognize that Philadelphia schools educate far more students in poverty, English language learners, and vulnerable students than almost all districts in the state. Roughly 85 percent of Philadelphia schoolchildren come from poor families – compared with a statewide average of 43 percent.
Even worse, there are rumblings in Harrisburg that lawmakers, skittish about raising taxes to support increased investment in our schoolchildren in an election year, may attempt to abandon substantial education funding increases while continuing to pursue this aggressive pro-charter language. This would leave Philadelphia with greater expenses and more cuts in services for its students.
The governor should make it clear that this would be unacceptable.
The important question about the role that charter schools should play in our educational system deserves its own broad and wide-ranging debate and should not be swept into the budget negotiations as a price that Philadelphia pays to get past funding cuts restored. The Philadelphia delegation should carefully review the costs of additional funding in deciding what to support.
There’s still time to make things right. As lawmakers return to Harrisburg to resume negotiations on a budget solution, these destructive proposed provisions should be eliminated from the school code.
Our lawmakers must instead refocus on passing a budget that contains at least $350 million in new basic education money to help restore school funding cuts and that begins to implement a new funding formula that rationally and fairly distributes education dollars. Only then can we embark on a long-term, sustainable solution that begins to right the School District’s finances and reflects our commonwealth’s values by beginning to provide every child with the resources needed to succeed.
Michael Churchill is an attorney at the Public Interest Law Center.
Deborah Gordon Klehr is executive director of the Education Law Center of Pennsylvania.
Susan Spicka is an advocacy coordinator for Education Voters PA.