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Bring back a formula

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

As grim as things have been for public schools in Philadelphia, it is hard to fathom that the budget picture could get even worse in 2014. We’ve already seen schools so short-staffed there was doubt that they could open in September. Only lucky schools got their own counselor and nurse … and rarely, a librarian. Students are dealing with overcrowded classrooms; many can’t get the coursework they need.

The future is bleak because the revenues the District tapped to roll back the most extreme cuts of the doomsday budget were mostly one-shot infusions. The $95 million that came from the city and state will need to be replaced in 2014. Costs for charter schools, utilities, health benefits, and pensions will continue their climb – by as much as $100 million. Once again, the District will have to grovel for large increases in city and state dollars just to maintain its bare-bones existence.

Remarkably, Pennsylvania is one of only three states without an enrollment-based, transparent formula for distributing state education dollars, according to a February Education Law Center report. In 2011, Pennsylvania stopped awarding dollars based on student numbers and needs, slashed education aid, and did away with targets that defined adequate funding levels for each district.

With the state now contributing barely a third of the total cost of its K-12 schools, local districts that vary tremendously in wealth must make up the difference, relying mainly on property tax revenues. This is inherently unequal and just plain stupid. It means that across the state, the students with the greatest need get the fewest education resources. It exacerbates economic and racial segregation. Families with means have an incentive to move to districts that can afford to spend more on education.

Gov. Corbett defends his destructive education budget as living within the state’s means and has blamed funding cuts on the loss of federal stimulus dollars. That is disingenuous. Harrisburg has consistently found money to build new prisons. The state replaced federal health care dollars that went away. This fall it raised money to keep state roads and bridges from falling apart. Corbett has not shown a similar commitment to educational adequacy and fairness.

The gubernatorial election and other races for state office in 2014 are an opportunity to hold elected officials to account and replace those who don’t respond. Pennsylvania should recommit to covering at least half the state’s education costs and distribute dollars to redress inequities in local wealth. Money for schools could come from taxes on gas drilling, now among the lowest in the country, and from rolling back some of the billions in corporate tax loopholes adopted over the past decade. Those tax breaks should be scrutinized every year just as spending plans are.

Philadelphia and other districts with significant charter sectors have an additional problem that Harrisburg should address. To deal with low school performance and provide families with choice, the state has encouraged the growth of a parallel system of charter schools. But the state provides Philadelphia no funds to support the extensive costs spawned by this dual system, which has absorbed thousands of new students drawn back from non-public schools. A full fix to the state’s inadequate education funding mechanism must change how charters are paid for, recognizing their financial impact on host districts.

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