This is a time of transformation for the Philadelphia School District, as it prepares for a return to local control with a mayor who has taken upon himself – and thrust upon future mayors – the full responsibility for improving the overburdened and underfunded system.
The School Reform Commission, a five-member, state-dominated body that has governed the District for more than 16 years, will disband on June 30 and be replaced the next day by a nine-member Board of Education named by Mayor Jim Kenney.
After years of pressure from activists and some politicians, Kenney decided in the fall to advocate for a return to local control of the District, which is by far the largest in the state. Now he is charged with naming the members of the new board. His 13-member nominating panel selected 27 candidates for him to consider.
But as the process unfolds, it is becoming clear that he is navigating difficult waters.
First, there is the issue of increasing the tax burden on Philadelphians to ensure that city students, many beset by poverty and trauma, receive the instruction and other supports they need to succeed in school and beyond.
On March 1, Kenney presented a budget in which he literally put his money where his mouth is, making a moral, political and practical case for the city investing more in its schools.
“Now, we are in a moment of truth,” he said. “It is time to write a new chapter in the history of Philadelphia’s schools.”
Citing a projected $900 million shortfall by 2023, Kenney said: “Addressing this tremendous need won’t be easy. But the alternative is far worse.”
He proposed a 6 percent hike in the city’s property tax, an increase in the business privilege tax, and a delay in reductions in the city wage tax in order to raise $980 million in additional funding for the District over five years.
Kenney said in an interview in the fall that he decided to seize full responsibility for the schools after two years of thought, weekly school visits and conversations with principals, constant clamor from activists, and the realization that the state government had no intention of using its control over the District to impose a rational, predictable school funding formula.
He had been pained by years of seeing schools that lacked needed services like counselors and nurses and educators who struggled along in buildings sorely in need of maintenance.
“We’re kind of on our own,” he said in November. “And I just didn’t want to see our kids start slipping back again. It’s just not fair. We’ve failed at least two generations of people with our public school system.”
In his budget speech, he said: “There is nothing left to cut. There is no one else to turn to. While we continue to press the Commonwealth to meet its constitutional requirement to fund schools adequately, we can no longer afford to wait for other people to act.”
Although the 2001 state takeover was engineered by a Republican administration that declared the District to be in fiscal and academic distress, that distress was not alleviated during the SRC’s 16 years in power. In fact, the District’s fiscal situation worsened as Republican leaders continued to contend that charters and privatization were the solution to unequal opportunity and to express doubts that more money sent to a behemoth, bureaucratic, unionized district would be used wisely.
The divided government in Harrisburg has not tackled the reality that the current state funding system is hurting traditional and charter schools alike.
The divided government in Harrisburg has not tackled the reality that the current state funding system is hurting traditional and charter schools alike. Although the legislature has adopted a predictable education funding formula based on need, it is applying it to only a small fraction of state aid. And the charter school law’s payment system pits the District against charters, forcing them to compete for adequate shares of the inadequate pie.
While applauding Kenney for his boldness and sense of responsibility, education advocates continue to point out that Pennsylvania ranks dead last in the country in the proportion of school aid that comes from the state. This situation has opened up the widest gap among the states between wealthier and poorest districts.
Dan Urevick-Ackelsberg of the Public Interest Law Center (PILC) points out that, even with increased education investment under Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf, the state is still giving Philadelphia $140 million less, not adjusted for inflation, than before the devastating cuts during Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s term (2011-2015). If the state put all education aid through the new formula instead of just the new money, Philadelphia would get $400 million more a year.
PILC and the Education Law Center are pressing a historic school funding lawsuit that the state Supreme Court has remanded to Commonwealth Court for arguments (in March) on the merits of the case – the first time this has happened in three decades of litigation aimed at bringing adequacy and equity to Pennsylvania’s education funding.
Kenney’s proposed method of raising the local money has also run into criticism. Urevick-Ackelsberg and others point out that, during the period of extreme austerity under Corbett starting in 2011, the city already increased its share of money contributed to schools – by about $427 million, or nearly 53 percent.
The property tax is the single biggest source of local money for schools, but advocates and some Council members point out that this increase puts the biggest burden on mostly low- and middle-income property owners. Kenney’s proposal also left untouched two other potential sources promoted by activists and some city officials – ending the city’s generous tax abatement for new construction, which benefits mostly developers and wealthier residents, and imposing PILOTs, or payments in lieu of taxes, on Philadelphia’s huge nonprofits, such as universities and hospitals.
Kenney said that, for the average city homeowner, the cost would amount to just $95 a year and just $70 for residents eligible for the homestead rebate. The total package “will mean an additional $980 million to the children of Philadelphia over five years,” which he said would be used to improve school buildings, provide more career and technical education, expand college access, add more reading coaches, and intensify efforts to diversify the predominantly white teaching force, among other investments.
His proposals would require approval from City Council, and not all Council members are on board with them.
Then there is the task of crafting a new school board. From among the 27 people from all walks of life proposed by a nominating panel, he must find nine who bring the necessary skills and experience to the job. The new board must also reflect the city’s diversity and satisfy the political needs of City Council, which will have more formal influence over the selections than it had before the SRC was established.
Changes in the City Charter are expected to be put on the May ballot that would require Council to approve any school board appointees, who serve at the pleasure of the mayor. The changes also allow any resident to be on the board – opening eligibility to non-citizens. And they require the mayor to explain to Council reasons for removing members “with specificity,” stopping short of the legal misconduct standard of “for cause” but hedging against a removal for purely political reasons.
For this round of appointees – which must be finalized before any changes in the City Charter can be voted on and made official – Council’s influence will be informal, but still crucial.
Already, concern is being expressed that just two black men are among the 27 candidates.
In discussing the nominating panel’s work, its chair, former SRC member Wendell Pritchett, said the panel always had diversity in mind when making its choices, but wished there had been even more diversity in the pool of applicants. More than 500 people applied or were nominated by others.
Kenney also has the authority to ask for more names before making his final choices. He is hoping to wrap up the process by the end of March so that the new slate can proceed with orientation.
As this transition moves forward, some are still agitating for an elected school board, like those in the 499 other Pennsylvania school districts.
In making his case for more city support of the schools, the mayor cited incremental gains in reading achievement, graduation rates, and some other indicators and said backsliding is not an option in the urgent work of unlocking student potential and ensuring the future of the city.
Even with additional money, how far this transformation can reach into schools and classrooms is still an open question. In many schools, the District is still plagued by inconsistency of leadership; principal and teacher turnover is more the norm than the exception.
Alluding in his budget speech to the unlikely run of the Super Bowl champion Eagles, Kenney said: “The children of the Philadelphia School District – the real underdogs – are hungry. They are hungry for knowledge that only a properly funded school, with updated books, modern technology, and adequate staffing, can bring.”