December 11 — 12:02 pm, 2017

Our opinion: It’s about time

srcnov1617 Dale Mezzacappa

In a fractious dispute with the School District of Philadelphia over funding, equity, and race, the state government assumed control of Philadelphia schools in 2001.

At the time, it was the largest school district in the country to be subject to such a takeover. What also made it unusual was that while the District had trouble meeting its expenses and the threat of massive cutbacks and even bankruptcy loomed, there were no charges of mismanagement or scandal.

Instead, an activist superintendent repeatedly charged that the Commonwealth wasn’t meeting its obligation to adequately fund Philadelphia schools to meet the needs of its mostly poor students of color. This, he said, was evidence of systemic racism.

The governor and legislative leaders responded with the takeover. What was the result? The change ousted a locally appointed nine-member board that had no power to raise its own revenue and replaced it with a state-dominated five-member board that also didn’t have such power.

Initially, there was an infusion of state money. After that, not much. What is clear after 16 years is that the governance change did not inspire Harrisburg to take special responsibility for Philadelphia’s schools.

The District continued to face funding crises. Charters expanded while District schools closed. The state declined to seriously address a charter funding formula that drained Philadelphia and other districts of funds. A charter reimbursement line item in the state budget that sent more than $100 million to Philadelphia was erased.

More bad things happened. Teachers worked for four years without a contract. The District’s aging buildings continued to fall into disrepair – officials estimate it would take $5 billion to bring them up to standards.

Harrisburg didn’t much care. When a legislative committee came up with a school funding formula that was based on each district’s need and local taxing capacity, lawmakers declined to apply it to the entire amount of state aid, only to increases.

From the beginning, activist groups and education watchdogs in Philadelphia never gave up the fight demanding a return to local control, ultimately – directly or indirectly – convincing Mayor Kenney that he should endorse their campaign.

When the mayor made the decision, it came with the admission that Harrisburg’s control – as the activists had been saying – had no real benefits.

Kenney had made it a habit to visit a school each week and had roundtable discussions with 158 District principals.

As the summer moved into fall, the Our Cities Our Schools coalition, a grass-roots movement that includes parents, students, teachers, retired teachers, and religious leaders, stepped up its campaign and met regularly with Kenney to press its case. Kenney, concerned that the move would further antagonize Harrisburg, consulted political leaders and concluded that Harrisburg’s fervor for “fixing” its largest school district had curdled into indifference.

“Help from the Commonwealth is not coming,” Kenney told City Council. “That’s the reality.”

So, he said, “When the SRC dissolves itself and we return to a [local] school board, you can hold me, and future mayors, accountable. … The buck will stop with us.” 

Kenney hinted at more or higher local taxes for schools; that seems inevitable. So does a closer working relationship between the city and the District.

Kenney did not specify what those new taxes might be, but the people who fought so hard for the governance change should also play an active and informed role in considering the city’s responsibilities, including those regarding where more money will come from, as they continue to press for fairer and more adequate state funding.

Some of the activists continue to push for an elected school board, which would have its own taxing power. Kenney opposes that. Philadelphia has no precedent for an elected board.

Kenney will appoint a nine-member school board, with Council approval, to set policy starting on July 1.

Making these appointments will be tricky, especially with Council approval in the mix. The new board must be diverse, ethnically and geographically. It must have significant parent participation. Undoubtedly, the huge charter sector, which now educates about a third of the city’s students, will want representation. And what about the SRC’s severest critics?

It is clear that this board will have to make hard decisions; the District is still facing a $701 million shortfall by 2022 without new revenue. 

The city’s best financial hope is a lawsuit that’s moving toward the state Supreme Court, challenging the heavy reliance on local property taxes to finance schools as unconstitutional and inequitable.

If the Supreme Court orders the legislature to distribute all of its basic school aid according to its new formula, Philadelphia would gain some $300 million more a year.

Study after study has shown that money does matter in outcomes for students, including one from the National Bureau of Economic Research that found that a 20 percent increase in per-pupil annual spending for poor children results in more educational attainment and lower poverty.

A victory in the lawsuit, however, will not and should not let the city off the hook in taking a hard look at how it distributes its local tax dollars and balances the needs of city government and the District. After all, Kenney himself said that quality education is the most important thing that a local government can provide.

“We’re kind of on our own, and I just didn’t want to see our kids start slipping back again,” Kenney said. “We’ve failed at least two generations with our public school system.”

It will not be easy, but this move is long overdue and a hopeful first step in trying to change that reality.  

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