Guest Opinion: Underfunding is only part of the District’s fiscal story
by Helen Gym
Why isn’t $2.3 billion enough? That’s a question often asked about Philadelphia’s schools. The sheer cost to operate them astounds people.
Governor Rendell has proposed a historic education-first budget that would deliver tens of millions more dollars to Philadelphia. But even with that, the District faces a grim future – a $50 million deficit by the end of next year and a five-year plan calling for teacher cutbacks and no raises.
More than ever, it’s important that we clarify our priorities in the District’s budget. Despite obvious underfunding compared to surrounding districts, some of our fiscal problems are of our own making. After the state takeover, the District adopted practices largely unheard of before – and they’re costing our schools more than ever.
Education and the free market
Former School Reform Commission Chair James Nevels used to boast that schools could turn to the free market and shop for any service. And indeed, private contracting for school services reached unprecedented levels.
The District contracts for curriculum, testing, cleaning services, school management, and more. The problem is that contracts are only as good as the oversight, and the District has proven it’s a terrible manager.
Media reports highlighted a community-based organization contractor that failed to pay its employees. Last year, Parents United for Public Education challenged $4 million in “cost overruns” for a food service contract that already paid Aramark $18 million.
Community Education Partners (CEP) collects $30 million a year to run disciplinary schools. The Notebook has highlighted how its fee is guaranteed regardless of enrollment and it receives thousands more per student than other providers get. Meanwhile, CEP has failed to provide data on the percentage of children it successfully returns to public schools.
The multiple-provider model, ensconced as the major reform strategy by the state takeover, promised public school choice through charters and schools run by for-profit and nonprofit managers. But after hundreds of millions of dollars of investment, results have been spotty at best. Most perform no better academically than the average District-managed school.
The District, meanwhile, has not held the failures accountable. Only one charter school has closed, and the District held onto every single education management organization (EMO) even after its staff recommended pulling them from two-thirds of the schools for poor performance.
While the District touts its multiple-provider model, many parents are questioning why quality options have been sacrificed to pay for this brand of reform. Class sizes have increased. We’ve eliminated a literacy intern program that trained teachers to become reading specialists. Three-quarters of elementary schools lack a librarian.
While schools got leaner, a wanton spending culture by top brass at “440” set in.
It started at the top with Nevels’ habit of dining at the Four Seasons on the District’s dime. High-level employees got golden parachutes. Even after sweeping layoffs hit the central office, District headquarters got $25,000 worth of plants for the atrium.
Incoming CEO Arlene Ackerman has a base salary of $325,000 – before potential bonus and exit packages. The Distict’s legal counsel earns $242,000 a year – more than the governor. Retirees hired back as consultants “double dip” on the District’s payroll. And many parents were upset to hear that Ackerman had offered 20 “transition consultants” $1,000 a day, partly to talk to parents.
Getting to a better budget
These are lean times. We can’t say that we want significant change around class size or the arts or behavioral support, but assume that we can keep promoting contracts and the multiple-provider model.
This year’s parent-led victories to establish art and music programs at every school and reduce class size amount to one half of one percent of the total District budget, which gets eaten up by debt, contracts, charters, and EMOs.
The SRC has set academic priorities but hasn’t costed them out. We need a floor that defines the minimum we want to see in each school. Parents United has called this a “baseline budget” that includes manageable class sizes, full-time nurses and librarians, classroom aides, science teachers and equipment, among others.
Quality schools cost a society as much as they give back. In difficult times, the District needs to assure the public that reform will make a difference in the classroom and that no one is taking advantage of public dollars.