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Parents change District budget

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

For proof of the value of organizing, look no further than the recent activism around the District’s budget crisis. Organized parent groups sounded the first public alarm about the impending crunch and have been steering the District to minimize the damage from a potentially catastrophic situation.

The crisis itself should be a reminder of the importance of an informed, involved public. For four years, recently departed CEO Paul Vallas and SRC chair Jim Nevels had persuaded many people that they had miraculously solved the District’s financial woes – claiming each spring that they were submitting "structurally balanced" budgets. All the while, they were overspending – with at least some of it in the form of lucrative, sweetheart contracts with the likes of Edison, CEP, and Princeton Review. Without enough independent scrutiny of their spending, they managed to dig the District into a deep hole.

When the financial mess started causing teacher cuts and reductions in schools’ discretionary budgets last year, Parents United for Public Education emerged to hammer away at the message that schools must be held harmless – "Cut contracts, not teachers."

While effective in protecting school-based spending and class size, the parents’ response was never simply a defensive one. Groups like Parents United, Home and School Council, and the Right to Education Taskforce were also insistent that the District open the books, explain the budget shortfall and proposed cuts, and allow for public discussion.

Their demands have resulted in a gradual shift in how the School Reform Commission does business. We have seen more budget information, more public hearings, more give-and-take with the public, and more explanation of business as it’s conducted. The SRC even backed off from its stubborn refusal to regularly hold some meetings in the evening.

Parents also played a decisive role in convincing the city and state to chip in more revenues to help the District. Pressure from parent groups clearly made the difference at City Hall, and increased city funding in turn greased the skids for more school funding from the state.

If not for the organized pressure mounted by parents, we would be looking at the necessity of much deeper cuts, and we might still be in the dark about where all the money is going. To put the District’s budget problems to rest, we’ll need more of this kind of organizing to build an unprecedented movement for real school funding reform in Harrisburg and true transparency here at home.

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