This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
On its second day in Philadelphia, the Basic Education Funding Commission heard Wednesday from two distinct groups.
First were charter operators, who highlighted their successes and parsed the complexities of the state’s education funding streams, mostly to argue that their schools are being shortchanged.
And then there were the ministers, parents, and advocates from POWER, the faith-based advocacy group, who urged the legislators to to think of school funding as a matter of justice.
They argued that all the children of Philadelphia were being unfairly treated because of who they are and where they live.
Those who tesfified had a litany, as in church. Each speaker would say, "Our children are worth more." The response, "We can’t wait any longer."
They urged the commission to make sure that all students have what they need, not just find a way to distribute whatever is available more fairly. The official charge of the commission is to deternine how to equitably distribute state funds — not necessarily to determine what is an adequate level.
POWER also brought David Mosenkis, the statistician who did an analysis of state aid to districts indicating a racial bias in how the money is distributed.
Mosenkis displayed his scatter plot showing starkly how districts with equivalent levels of poverty get more money per pupil if their student body is mostly White. The amount decreases as a district becomes more diverse.
He stressed that his findings show correlation, not causation. "Racial discrimination can emerge even without intention," said Mosenkis.
Several legislators asked him why he thought the disparity occured.
Size could be a factor, Mosenkis answered — most poor, White districts are small and rural — but he said that could not account for all the difference.
More likely is an accumulation of factors added to Pennsylvania’s funding mechanism over the years, including a "hold harmless" provision that guarantees that a district gets at least the same amount as it got the year before even if its enrollment declines.
Commission co-chair Sen. Pat Browne of Allentown called Mosenkis’ testimony "very insightful." Later, he said that it would influence the commission’s work.
"We don’t want any formula to have unintended consequences," Browne said.
Initially, Mosenkis and the other POWER-affiliated speakers had been denied a spot on the witness list. But after POWER announced that it planned a nonviolent action to offer testimony regardless — and after pressure from Mayor Nutter’s Office of Education — the commission changed its mind. It arranged a half-hour block for individual testimonies and a separate slot for Mosenkis.
The speakers from POWER urged the legislators to make their report in March, not June as planned, so a new formula could be considered in time for the next school year.
Browne said that speeding up the timeline was a "possibility. … We want our work to be relevant."
Bishop Dwayne Royster, executive director of POWER and a parent in the Norristown school district, said that the state was promoting a "myth of scarcity" that sufficient funds weren’t available to invest adequately in education.
"It’s a choice we make" not to raise enough funds from those who can afford it to invest in schools, he said.
The charter operators were on the same page as POWER in saying that Philadelphia schools need more revenue from the state. Uncertainty and volatility in funding is bad for planning, they said.
"It’s impossible for us to budget properly, district or charter schools," said Aaron Bass of KIPP.
"A fair funding formula is key to charter success," said John Swoyer, CEO of MaST charter school.
Charter payments are based on the host district’s per-pupil averages from the prior year. So when a district spends less, charter revenue also decreases.
They spoke to one option that the commission is considering: a system in which money follows the child based on the student’s particular needs and circumstances, a so-called "weighted" formula.
After the hearing, Browne said that testimony about charters echoed much of what the commission has heard elsewhere in the state. It was important to hear it in Philadelphia, he said, because the city is most impacted by charter growth. Well over one-third of students in publicly funded schools in Philadelphia attend charters.
The basic message that Browne said he has heard everywhere is: "The amount of money going to charters is inadequate for them, but the amount traditional schools are sending to charters is too much of a burden on districts."
On its first day in Philadelphia, the commission heard Tuesday from School District officials, who outlined how the District’s obligation to charters was among the mandated expenditures contributing to its financial instability.
Browne said after the hearing that "the most important consideration" for the commission is to figure out whether "Philadelphia’s amount in relation to the total aid is equitable and fair to reflect the needs of Philadelphia students in traditional and charter schools. If we accomplish that, our charge has been met."