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Nutter, coalition plead with Harrisburg for $120 million for city schools

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

Saying it’s time for Gov. Corbett to relieve the pain caused by massive cuts in state aid to public education over the last two years, Mayor Nutter and a coalition of District, charter and Catholic schools are making a push in support of the School Reform Commission’s request for $120 million in additional state aid for city schools.

“What’s happening at the school level doesn’t lie,” said Lori Shorr, the mayor’s chief education officer. “Talk to parents in a charter school or a District-managed school. They understand what the cuts have meant.”

Nutter, along with the Great Schools Compact, is calling on Corbett and the state legislature to increase the state’s basic education subsidy, restore state reimbursements to districts for money they spend on charter schools and adopt a “student-based funding formula” as a long-term solution to the District’s chronic budget woes.

Nutter was in Harrisburg on Tuesday pressing that case with state legislators, his spokesman Mark McDonald said.

“The School District’s budget is in a structural crisis,” McDonald said. “The state has a critical role to play, and so does the city.”

A spokesman for Senate Republicans responded coolly to the request.

“It’s a big ask in a very difficult budget year,” Erik Arneson said.

Last month, the School Reform Commission adopted a preliminary budget statement with a shortfall of at least $242 million. The plan to make ends meet counts on $120 million from the state and $60 million from the city, as well as deep concessions from teachers.

The massive budget hole continues a two-year budget crisis brought about by sharp drops in state and federal aid since Corbett took office, as well as poor financial planning by the District.

McDonald said Nutter remains committed to coming up with the city’s portion of the SRC’s request, although details are still nonexistent.

To support the campaign for more state aid, the Mayor’s Office of Education has hired a temporary project manager to help coordinate and support the variety of organizing efforts underway in Philadelphia to push for more state funds.

Part of that work is occurring through the Great Schools Compact, which includes leaders from the District, charters, and the archdiocese.

“We’re all on the same page,” said Shorr, the group’s chairperson. “I think people have really started to understand that their fates are tied and that joint advocacy is a better solution.”

The funding proposal

Shorr said the Great Schools Compact is specifically recommending that Corbett and legislators in Harrisburg consider providing the $120 million requested by the SRC via:

  • Increasing the state’s subsidy for public education, paid to every traditional school district in the state.
  • Restoring some version of the “charter reimbursement” line item, which previously provided tens of millions of dollars to districts annually to help offset the cost of charter schools. The charter reimbursement was eliminated by Corbett prior to the 2011-12 school year.
  • Forming a bipartisan commission to develop and implement a “weighted student funding formula” that is based on district’s actual enrollments and accounts for the specific needs of individual students.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education, also a member of the Compact, recused itself from the Compact’s deliberations in supporting the SRC’s request.

A PDE spokesman did not return calls for comment.

Corbett’s most recent budget proposal calls for $90 million in new basic education funding statewide, $15 million of which would go to Philadelphia.

Senate Republican spokesman Arneson described that figure as “a floor” that could end up higher if the state takes in more money than anticipated over the next two months.

But convincing the state to come up with a huge sum of money for Philadelphia schools alone will be a tough sell, he said.

“It’s very challenging to see a scenario in which $120 million in additional funds can be found for any purpose other than what’s already been outlined in the governor’s budget,” Arneson said.

It’s unclear what would happen to the District’s budget if the state doesn’t meet the SRC’s request. Officials are already counting on $133 million in concessions from teachers in order to balance the District’s books next year, and Superintendent William Hite has said that further cuts to schools are not a viable option. The SRC has also emphasized that it will not be able to take on new debt after borrowing $300 million this year just to pay the District’s bills.

The stakes for bringing more money into Philadelphia’s public schools couldn’t be higher, Shorr said.

“If we can’t figure out how to balance our budget, I’m not quite sure how public education works next year in this city,” she said.

Restoring a version of the charter reimbursement could provide significant support for Philadelphia, which enrolls about 62,000 charter school students — roughly half of all the charter students in the state.

Started in 2002-03, the charter reimbursement called on the state to give districts up to 30 percent of the total value it spent on charters in the previous year. In 2010-11, the last year the charter reimbursement was in place, the Philadelphia District received $110 million.

The Compact also is calling on Nutter and City Council to come up with the $60 million in city funds requested by the SRC, but no details about how that might happen have yet been laid out.

“We’re at a stage where the mayor has identified an important goal for the city,” McDonald said. “We have until the end of May to come up with ways of getting as close to that goal as possible.”

A ‘higher road’

Shorr said the Mayor’s Office of Education has hired Ceci Schickel to help cultivate the “many efforts by grassroots organizations and others” to push for more state funding.

As a city employee, Schickel will be paid $2,000 per week until the end of June for her work.

Shorr also praised the District and its 80-plus charter schools — historic adversaries — for taking a “higher road” and making a unified request for more state aid.

“When you don’t have them working together, you’re just not as strong in Harrisburg,” Shorr said. “Now we do have them working together, and I think that’s going to make a difference.”

In Pennsylvania, because of the way the state funding system works, charters feel the effects of budget cuts one year later than traditional districts. Any restoration of funds to traditional districts would likewise take a year to make its way to charters.

Lawrence Jones, the president of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Public Charter Schools, said charters’ hopes are straightforward: “We want to see increased funding for public education across the board.”

Jones also praised the Great Schools Compact for bringing charters and the School District together, saying, “You can have competition without having conflict."

This story was reported through a partnership in education coverage between WHYY/NewsWorks and the Notebook.

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