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The path forward: A Q&A with Susan Gobreski

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

With all the questions swirling around this year’s education budget, virtually everyone agrees on one thing: It won’t solve the Philadelphia School District’s big problems. Union officials, charter advocates, School Reform Commission officials, parent groups, Mayor Nutter, even President Obama’s top education official, agree that under the current status quo, Philadelphia students are not getting the education they deserve.

With that in mind, the Notebook has asked education advocates to weigh in on the bigger question: What’s the long-term path to a truly stable, well-funded, reliable school system? Over the next few weeks, we’ll run a series of Q&As with local leaders and ask for their thoughts on the route to a better place.

Our first interviewee is Susan Gobreski, executive director of Education Voters Pennsylvania, an advocacy group. A 20-year veteran of political activism in Pennsylvania, Gobreski’s goal is to fight for a “thorough and efficient public education” for all students, District and charter alike.

How do you interpret what just happened to the School District and its pleas for funding in Harrisburg?

The problem is the legislature keeps pushing things down to the local level. Every time the state doesn’t provide enough funding, that gets kicked down. Over the past few years, the city government has done more, but Philadelphia still needs adequate revenue from both local and state sources.

Absent this big-picture fix, we’ve devolved to conversations around specific taxes like the cigarette tax. And that gets convoluted with other political priorities. Pension reform, privatizing liquor stores … people kept kicking it back and forth, making changes and a lot of little political deals that slowed it down.

Budgets are always political, but have you ever seen this much horse-trading?

I think it’s always happened. Social media and a more engaged public makes those things more visible, which is good in the long run.

But in the short run, it can be frustrating to see how the sausage gets made. When you hear politicians say, I’m not going to vote to give kids what they need because I want something else over here, that should be a clarion call to the public that we need elected officials to think differently.

People complain that Philadelphia is always asking for money. But it’s not that it’s asking for new money, or more money – it’s asking for the same money, over and over. When politicians provide one-time fixes, like the $45 million that was provided last year, it helps address last year’s issue, but we still have that same deficiency this year.

What Philadelphia needs is enough sources of recurring revenue that we have a budget to match our needs. It sounds simple, but it turns out to be complicated.

Where is the sustainable, recurring funding at the state level?

I think the Marcellus Shale tax and closing corporate tax loopholes are certainly supported by the public. Special interests fight against those. A very minor increase to the personal income tax would raise revenues and not be too hard on families. It could be pennies in your paycheck.

What about in the city?

At the local level, there are things like improving tax collections. With tax abatements, we need to make sure that the city does not give up the District’s share. There are other possibilities. There’s a taxi medallion fund; that money can and should go to schools.

With elections in November, we’ll be in a gubernatorial campaign as soon as school starts. Education will be a big issue, right?

I think it’s great that this really looks like it’s going to be an education election.
People have supported public education, but it hasn’t necessarily been a top-polling issue [as it is now]. But when the public has made its wishes known, we have gotten traction. [Under Gov. Ed Rendell] there was public support and we made forward progress.

Would it help the push for funding if we got a deal on the teachers’ contract? Should the District make settling that more of a priority?

Yes. The teachers’ contract isn’t a revenue source, it’s an expense. To categorize it as a revenue source [i.e. a means to close the deficit] is the wrong conversation. The right conversation is, what is a good pay and benefits package that allows us to get and keep good teachers? That’s how you build a strong organization.

The District and the teachers have a shared interest in coming up with a short-term agreement that helps set aside this question, so that it can’t be used as leverage either way.

Supporters of traditional public education have been very vocal this budget season; supporters of charters and ed reform have been pretty quiet by comparison. But they have a stake in this too, right?

A lot of people overlook the fact that they’re in it together. As the District rises and falls, so do charter school budgets.

I’ve talked to people who work for charter schools who don’t understand it. They say, Well, the District is going to cut us. But there’s a formula — by law, the District doesn’t have discretion about how much to give the charter schools.

The charter schools would be well advised to get into the fight for a long-term funding fix that works for everybody.

There’s a lot of distrust and even animosity between traditional public education supporters and reformers. Can anything bring those sides together?

The big picture right now is getting a funding formula. A good state system will address all of the means of delivery, charter or traditional.

But I think there’s another reform agenda out there that is often a distraction. The reform message, some of the stuff sounds really attractive. Like, Hey, money doesn’t matter, change a couple things and it’ll be better. That appeals to people.

But the big question people ask is, What does it take to make public schools work? The answer is, We know what works, we’re doing it in lots of places. It means kids have time with teachers and access to arts and individual support; that teachers have time to plan lessons; that schools have the right equipment, and the environment is healthy safe and inviting.

That’s what works. Any conversation that is not about those things is a distraction.

What are some specific things that Education Voters of Pennsylvania will be doing in the months to come?

Our advocacy will focus on fair and adequate funding, on the role of education in elections, and on the need for potential legal action to get the state to change what it’s doing: What are students entitled to in order to get a decent, quality education?

There’s a whole coalition that’s been formed to talk about fair funding: us, PCCY, the Education Law Center, Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children, PILCOP, POWER, the Philadelphia School Partnership. We actually have support from the Chamber of Commerce.

This is what it’s going to take: faith groups, business leaders, parents. This is the common ground: Funding schools adequately is important.

Will that group plan to put out specific recommendations before the November elections?

Correct. It’s working on an articulation of those questions this summer.

Right now, we’re in a Catch-22, where the District is underfunded, so it doesn’t do as well as we’d like it to do, so people feel frustrated in supporting it. What we really need is a well-supported institution people feel good about. Other places have that, and we should have it too.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.