May 24 — 12:00 am, 2007

A chance to make change

In the coming weeks, education advocates in Philadelphia, along with the School District, will be doing their best to secure additional funding from the city and state to try to ward off draconian budget cuts.

But even if these efforts succeed, chronic funding shortfalls mean that Philadelphia’s schools will still be stuck trying to create positive learning environments under impossible conditions – in large classes without the resources needed to respond to students’ individual needs.

Across the city, thousands of students must attend classes daily in substandard facilities, with teachers who are stretched thin and lack essential resources and supports. They attend schools that often cannot offer art, music, libraries, or physical education and are short on vital student services like counselors and nurses.

Budget cuts over the last two years have made matters worse by wiping out recent progress on class size. Many classes are now back up to or even beyond the limits of 30 or 33 per classroom set by the teachers’ contract.

While some efficiencies can no doubt be found in how Philadelphia uses the $2.4 billion it receives annually for education, there is no way around the fact that this system needs more city support and is still underfunded by the state of Pennsylvania. The commonwealth ranks 49th in the percentage share of school expenditures paid for by the state government.

Although Pennsylvania sends most of its education aid to poorer districts like Philadelphia (which gets just over half its funding from the state), there’s just not a big enough pot of funding from Harrisburg to make a difference. It is a bad system that only works for the richest school districts, which are guaranteed a minimum state grant even though they can raise lots of money from their property taxes.

Who suffers under Pennsylvania’s funding system? Hundreds of the state’s poorer communities have maxed out in their ability to raise taxes locally. Lacking an aggressive effort from the state to equalize disparities, it is no wonder Philadelphia is spending less per student than any other major city in the northeastern United States. No wonder that Philadelphia has less money per student than all but four of the surrounding suburban school districts.

Philadelphia city and school leaders have tried various strategies and tactics but failed to address this problem. Even though Gov. Rendell has had some success in funneling additional funds to city schools, the gap between what Philadelphia spends and what many surrounding suburbs spend is still huge.

But grassroots activism on the issue is strong, and there is reason for optimism if we can address three glaring mistakes that have regularly gotten in the way of effective advocacy for fair funding:

  • When the School District budget is not transparent or well understood by the stakeholders in city schools, fingers point back at the District, rather than at the inadequate level of state and city funding.

  • When District leaders maintain that the system’s budget problems are under control, it undercuts activists’ efforts to address the continuing, savage inequalities in school conditions.

  • When Philadelphia goes solo to Harrisburg to make a case for more funding, legislators from the rest of the state are bound to turn a deaf ear to these pleas.

With a new mayor and a new leader of the District expected in 2008, there is an opportunity for a fresh approach that we cannot afford to miss. A long-term fix to the inadequate school funding can only come out of a powerful new coalition. Philadelphia has many natural allies in this fight – not only its own citizens and those of poorer urban districts, but many struggling inner-ring suburbs and rural school districts. Across the state, hundreds of thousands of students are denied the kind of quality education they need to open doors for their futures.

Forging that strong statewide alliance will require hard work to overcome political, racial, and class divisions that have kept urban, rural, and suburban districts fighting over money rather than finding their common interest. City officials could start building good faith by adopting Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr.’s bill that would increase the District’s share of city property tax funds.

We need a new schools chief who has political skills to tackle these funding challenges and who can build alliances with peers from across the state. He or she must work with the School Reform Commission to restore confidence in the District’s budget and welcome the opportunity to account to the public for spending.

We need our new mayor to forge a strong city-District partnership and resolve the endless bickering about who pays for trash pickups or political appointees on the District payroll. We need someone who understands the link between the city’s epidemic of violent crime and the failure of our schools, and who leads the city in the direction of comprehensive solutions.

Ultimately, we need the mayor, the governor, the schools’ CEO, and the SRC to become effective allies working for an equitable system of school funding that gives all students the resources they need.

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