This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
by Monika Zaleska
Superintendent William Hite on Tuesday publicly decried the lack of a reliable education funding formula in Pennsylvania, noting that Philadelphia, with many of the Commonwealth’s neediest students, still doesn’t know whether it will have enough money to operate full-service schools this year.
Hite made his remarks at a symposium – the subject of which was “equity and excellence in education as a civil rights issue — convened as a warm-up to the annual conference of the national Urban League, which opens here Wednesday.
“I do think that, as a Commonwealth, we have to collectively think about how do we make sure we are meeting the needs of students regardless of where they attend school. And the only way to deal with that through a lack-of-basic-education-funding perspective is through a formula,” Hite said.
Hite said that the District has taken many steps toward cutting expenses, including closing schools, reducing its workforce, and suspending the expansion of charter schools. And yet the money is still short.
His calls for the return of a funding formula were met by the loudest applause of the day from a full Pennsylvania Convention Center conference room of educators and policymakers from around the state.
“I am wondering why in the District that educates more black children than any other place in Pennsylvania, I’m wondering why the money or funding in the place in Pennsylvania that educates more children in poverty than any other place, or more children that are learning English than any other place, is the least funded,” Hite said.
“Here’s a question. Here’s a question we should all be asking, and as I think about this, the response to this question could be a funding formula.”
Later, in an interview with reporters, he elaborated.
“I just don’t understand how, if in fact we’re educating more students in poverty, more minority students, more students who are learning English as second language, and more students with special needs, we have one of the lowest per-pupil funding mechanisms of any district in the Commonwealth. That’s the fundamental question and the only way you address it is by attaching funds to students and their needs,” Hite said.
Also at the forum was acting Pennsylvania Secretary of Education William Harner, who spoke before Hite. He said that “money does matter,” but that it must be spent on “things that work.” He also told the group that Gov. Corbett had kept his promise not to raise taxes.
Hite appeared to be responding to Harner, but it was not clear whether the secretary remained in the room to hear him.
Harner, a former superintendent of the well-off Cumberland Valley district who spent a year working in Philadelphia under then-superintendent Paul Vallas, said that he plans to host meetings around the state to have “frank conversations” about education.
Meanwhile, Philadelphia is getting ready to open schools without secretaries, counselors, and most support staff. Facing a $300 million shortfall in this year’s budget, it laid off more than 3,800 employees.
The District asked for $180 million from the state and city and is counting on $133 million in labor concessions, mostly from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.
But the funding package worked out in Harrisburg amounts to about $127 million in additional funds, and most of that is still uncertain.
“We’re getting to a place now where we have to move very quickly on what sources of revenue will be available. The District is ready to deploy those resources for the things we’ve prioritized, services to students, and safety,” said Hite.
But so far, that doesn’t amount to very much.
For now, the only sure addition beyond what the District already budgeted, Hite said, is $17 million — $2 million in basic education funding and $15 million in enhanced city tax collections. Still not finalized is a $45 million payment from the state, using money from a partially forgiven federal debt, and a $50 million loan from the city using as collateral expected future sales tax revenues.
Many at the conference called for the return of a predictable education funding formula, which was abandoned in summer 2011 after three years in place.
“I don’t buy the argument that we don’t have the money," said Ronald Cowell, a former Democratic state legislator who is the president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg. “The point really is you choose to do something else with the money, you spend it somewhere else, or you give it away in terms of a tax break.”
Monika Zaleska is an intern at the Notebook.