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Groups plan actions for when education funding body meets in Philly

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

The Pennsylvania legislature’s Basic Education Funding Commission is coming to Philadelphia for hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, and two advocacy groups have announced plans to make sure that its members hear from the public whether they want to or not.

The commission, charged with devising a fairer way of distributing state school aid, has been holding hearings around the state. Its witnesses have mostly been experts and school district officials, rather than parents, students, and front-line school workers.

Public Citizens for Children and Youth (PCCY) plans to invite parents and others to speak at a separate hearing an hour before the commission is scheduled to convene at 1 p.m. on Tuesday. It will videotape the hearing and make it available to the commission.

But the faith-based organizing group POWER plans to make itself heard during the meeting itself.

It sent an open letter to the commission saying that it will provide witnesses, whether invited or not, to make sure that the voices of people who are most affected by inadequate school funding are heard.

"POWER is about to do an action at the hearing," said Elder Melanie DeBouse, pastor of Evangel Chapel in North Philadelphia and a POWER activist. "We are parents, grandparents and taxpayers. We vary in our level of expertise, but we are certainly stakeholders in our children’s education. Our objective is to let our voices be heard."

Mayor Nutter, Superintendent William Hite, School Reform Commission Cair Bill Green, and District Chief Financial Officer Matt Stanski will speak Tuesday, District spokesman Fernando Gallard confirmed.

Charter operators and advocates will be well-represented during the two days, and the panel may even make a field trip to Freire Charter School, according to one version of the tentative schedule obtained through a legislative source. Mark Gleason of the pro-school-choice Philadelphia School Partnership is on the Tuesday agenda, a PSP spokesperson confirmed.

In addition to POWER, represesentatives from PCCY and the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP), which has been involved for decades in legal action regarding school funding reform, sought to speak, said PCCY executive director Donna Cooper. They were denied.

Cooper said that Nutter "tried very hard" to have the commission hear from a teacher, parent and student, but was rebuffed.

According to House Republican spokesman Steve Miskin, other commission sessions around the state have not included such testimonies. The point of the hearings is to find ways to "improve the fairness of the distribution of state school funds," Miskin said, so the commission is prioritizing hearing from experts and people who deal directly with budgets, including school principals. He said several Philadelphia principals were on the Tuesday agenda.

The funding issue, Miskin said, "is very technical." The commission is seeking information that will move beyond stories that boil down to a plea for more money for their school or district, he said. Technically, the commission’s charge is to find ways to more fairly distribute the funds made available, not determine "adequacy" levels of what is needed.

Data analyst David Mosenkis, who is affiliated with POWER, did a statistical analysis showing that the state’s school funding system has a discriminatory impact based on race. His analysis showed that districts with comparable levels of poverty receive less per student when their enrollment is more racially diverse.

Mosenkis sought to present his findings to the commission, but was turned down. Instead he submitted his work to commission staff.

Asked why Mosenkis was disregarded as an expert witness, Miskin said he couldn’t speak to that decision.

Experts on the Philadelphia list include Dr. David Rubin, co-director of PolicyLab at Children’s Hospital, who will talk about foster children. One goal of those trying to come up with a fairer formula is to determine the cost of educating children with significant needs, such as those who have been affected by trauma and family instability.

Miskin said that Temple University president Neil Theobold will also testify.

On Wednesday, the commission plans to hear from a panel on operating charter schools under the current funding system. It will include Mastery Charter CEO Scott Gordon, KIPP Charter CEO Marc Mannella, Boys’ Latin CEO David Hardy, and MaST Community Charter CEO John Swoyer.

There will also be a panel on state charter policy. Among those expected to speak is Lawrence Jones, president of the Pennsylvania Coalition of Public Charter Schools and CEO of Richard Allen Preparatory Charter School.

POWER’s open letter said that members been trying to get on the commission’s agenda at various meetings around the state without success.

"The hearings thus far have been severely limited — with the commission having full control over who testifies and no clear plan for including public input that we can be assured will be heard," the letter says. "We question how decisions that will affect the lives of hundreds of thousands of families can be made without actually hearing from these families. The Commission’s work is thus woefully incomplete until there is opportunity for the public to provide in-person testimony regarding issues of state education funding."

In explaining its intentions for Tuesday, the group says: "With all due respect, parents, families, and citizens cannot wait any longer. If there is no authentic public comment period provided next week, we feel we have no other choice but to exercise our rights to do the right thing and provide expert witnesses anyway, regardless of whether or not they have been invited. …

"Parents, teachers, educators, clergy, and researchers who have been thus far muffled will offer their analysis of the problem with education funding as it stands in Pennsylvania and provide their own visionary solutions during the scheduled hearings."

Miskin said the commission is working on a website where the public can submit testimony.

He said he hoped the two days in Philadelphia go smoothly.

"Throughout the state, there haven’t been problems and protests," he said. "Philadelphia is trying to make more of it than it is."

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