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Corbett’s budget, a perfect storm for Philly, schools

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

Now that the Governor has announced his budget the full extent of its impact on Philadelphia’s beleaguered public schools is becoming clear.

To put things in perspective, during the Rendell years the school funding formula was revised to reflect the needs of each District as well as it’s wealth and tax effort. That, combined with steady increases in funding levels, was significant benefit to the poorer school districts like Philadelphia, enabling lower class size, full day kindergarten, more counselors, after school programs, summer school and many other positive changes. In spite of this the District remained chronically underfunded when compared to nearby affluent suburbs.

Now the District faces a nearly ten percent cut in basic education funding. That, in and of itself, is a disaster, virtually guaranteeing a reversal of the gains made over the last decade. But there’s more. The District will lose a 55 million accountability block grant which was used to fund all day kindergarten as well as summer school and after school programs.

An even more significant cut is the 110 million the state reimburses the District for charter school costs. This, when combined with the ruling that Philadelphia cannot cap charter school enrollment, has devastating implications. The cuts will certainly fuel movement out of neighborhood public schools into charters.

This development, along with the likelihood that a voucher bill will be enacted, marks another step toward institutionalizing a two tier system of public education…magnet schools, charters and vouchers for those who can choose, underfunded, struggling neighborhood schools for everybody else.

As in every budget there are winners and losers. The big winners are the energy corporations who can move ahead with their environmentally dangerous drilling for natural gas without the threat of a severance tax. Also happy are Pennsylvania corporations who will see the phasing out of the capital stock and franchise tax. So much for shared sacrifice.

Losers include public employees and, especially teachers. Legislation is being introduced to allow teacher layoffs for economic reasons. Corbett is also calling for merit pay, changes in tenure and capping local property tax rates at the rate of inflation. A salary freeze and reopening teacher contracts are additional measures the Governor supports.

But the biggest losers are the most vulnerable people, poor people, especially children, a population in Philadelphia that is disproportionately African American and Latino. Cuts in education, Medicaid, and social services further shred an already fragile safety net.

Little noted in the mainstream media is the huge increase in the budget for prison funding. The state will spend 600 million on new prison construction according to the Education Not Incarceration Coalition. That’s about the same amount as the anticipated School District deficit.

The only good news is the emerging fight back movement among unions, community based groups and advocacy organizations. Governor Corbett, thankfully, has avoided the extremes of Governor Walker in Wisconsin, but his budget is animated by the same mean spirited politics and class warfare. In response we need to bring the spirit of Madison to Philadelphia.