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Commission hears from Philadelphia that spending cuts have created a crisis

Experts and members of the public urge legislators to base a new formula on the real needs of students.

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

Experts, advocates, and ordinary citizens from Philadelphia on Tuesday told legislators charged with revising Pennsylvania’s education funding formula that city schools are reeling from the consequences of insufficient revenue and urged the panel to base state aid on real student need.

"Philadelphia schools are now a strong investment," said School Reform Commission Chair Bill Green to the members of the Basic Education Funding Commission, which has been holding hearings around the state. He said that several years ago, while on City Council, he didn’t believe this, but that he is now confident in the leadership of Superintendent William Hite.

"Under Dr. Hite, the District has navigated a difficult course to financial stability. … Today I can confidently tell you that further funding won’t go to bureaucracy but will be used instead to improve student learning."

The commission spent three hours listening to Green, as well as Mayor Nutter, Hite, District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski, two school principals, Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, and experts David Rubin of Children’s Hospital and Temple University president Neil Theobold. Rubin wrote a study showing that one in five Philadelphia students has had contact with the family court and juvenile justice system, and Theobold is a professor of school finance and a consultant to states on funding.

Nutter said that the commission’s work should be "a game-changer" for the state’s students.

"People expect and demand for us to be leaders in education," he said.

He urged the panel to support higher state education spending and a change in the way the revenue is distributed to take into account the level of student poverty and other student needs, including English language learner and special education status. More than 123,000 children in Philadelphia — the poorest city of its size in the nation — live in poverty, he said.

"Money matters, plain and simple," Nutter said.

He also congratulated the commission’s last-minute decision to hear from members of the public, and not just from a select group of officials and experts.

"It was a good decision," Nutter said, to applause from the hundreds of people who had packed into a City Hall courtroom.

The commission had carefully controlled the witness list, but changed its mind after the faith-based organizing group POWER threatened a nonviolent action if members of the public directly impacted by the funding cuts were not permitted to speak.

The public will have a half-hour to present testimony Wednesday at the commission’s second hearing, which will mostly have witnesses from charter schools.

After the meeting, commission co-chair Rep. Mike Vereb of Montgomery County said that the initial reluctance in hearing from the public "is an issue of redundancy. We understand the issues facing Philadelphia well. If we had unlimited public comment, we’d be here for weeks."

But he added that Tuesday’s testimony gave the commission "a very good snapshot of what is happening in Philadelphia."

Nutter urged the commissioners to read an article in the Notebook that detailed the findings of statistician David Mosenkis, who found that the current system for distributing state education aid is racially biased. Equally poor districts get more money per student the more White students they have, according to the analysis. Mosenkis is a leader in the group POWER.

Public Citizens for Children and Youth ran a one-hour meeting before the official hearing, at which more than a dozen witnesses spoke, including PCCY executive director Donna Cooper. Commission co-chairs Sen. Patrick Browne of Allentown and Vereb listened to that testimony and said they were "honored" to be there.

"Our purpose is to hear all the stories," said Browne.

In his testimony, Hite described a severely uneven playing field — a city in which 35 percent of the children and 90 percent of those in District schools live in poverty — surrounded by the four most affluent counties in Pennsylvania that spend far more on their students. Despite Philadelphia students’ needs, he said, he’s been forced to close schools, cut counselors and AP courses, reduce the pay "of some of our hardest-working staff," and eviscerate budgets that pay for supplies and extracurriculars.

"The fiscal landscape we have grappled with over the past several years does not, and cannot, reflect the value we place on young people and our collective obligation to them," Hite said.

Added South Philadelphia High School principal Otis Hackney, who briefly left the District to lead Springfield High School in Montgomery County: "What our children experience in Philadelphia schools would never be tolerated in other districts."

District Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski said that under the current system, the District doesn’t have enough to adequately serve all its special ed students, whose programming is dictated by law. Delivering those services limits funds available for other students, he said.

"A fair funding formula that provides additional funds for students who require additional educational resources will allow the District to focus on providing adequate resources to students who require specialized services without compromising the academic program that engages and educates all of our students," he said.

There was much discussion about how to "weight" these needs and about whether the overwhelming presence of poverty should in and of itself count as a weight, not just the poverty status of individual students.

Cooper of PCCY said that "concentrated poverty" is a factor, citing studies showing that once a school reaches a 30 percent level of poverty, high-quality academics become harder to achieve.

Mark Gleason of the Philadelphia School Partnership, which has given more than $35 million in privately raised dollars to selected high-performing schools, had a different take. He agreed that Philadelphia schools need additional funds, but while money matters, he said, it is less important than other ingredients in making a school "great," primarily flexibility and accountability.

"There is ample evidence, some of it reviewed by this commission, that funding alone is not a determinant of educational outcomes," he said. "It is true that — where we see inequities in educational opportunity — we should endeavor to use funding as a tool to increase equity. But it is not the only tool we should use, nor does the evidence show it to be the most powerful tool."

Gleason said that in Philadelphia, there are 17 schools with 80 percent or more of their students in poverty that scored above 70 on the state’s School Performance Profile measure, deemed by state education officials to be the cutoff for being on the right track.

That is less than 10 percent of the 200 or so city public schools in that category.

He said that 80 of those schools, or 40 percent, score between 55 and 70. And nearly 100, or half, score below 55.

"The differences are in how the schools spend their money, and even more fundamentally, in the leaders and teachers spending it," he said.

Rubin of Children’s Hospital, making a different argument, showed the commission a graph indicating that dropout rates for the neediest of students — those who have been in the child welfare or juvenile justice systems –– improved when the District had more money in 2008-09.

He said it was very important to "align funds with the risk level and needs of students."

Temple president Theobold said that his work with other states on their funding systems made it clear that a priority for Pennsylvania must be to "lessen dependence on property wealth" and more equitably distribute the burden between the state and localities. Pennsylvania has one of the lowest state shares of education spending in the nation.

He also said that the commission should eliminate the "hold harmless" provision in the current system that guarantees districts at least the same amount they got the year before, even if their enrollment has gone down and their needs have changed. Taking a step like this would be politically controversial.

The commission is charged with coming up with a new formula by June. Vereb said the key issue is political:

“The three most important numbers here are 102, 26 and 1, the votes needed in the House and Senate, and the governor. We have to put a bill together that can pass,” he said.

Additional reporting by Kevin McCorry of NewsWorks.

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