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The path forward: Q&A with civil rights lawyer Michael Churchill of PILCOP

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

Michael Churchill has worked as an attorney with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia for almost four decades, winning widespread recognition as one of the region’s most effective education advocates.

Twenty years ago, he helped bring a landmark desegregation case to what he thought was a successful conclusion, when Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith ordered the Philadelphia School District to step funding for struggling schools citywide.

But what followed was a state takeover and a host of experiments in private management and school choice, and system-wide inequities persist to this day. We asked Churchill to reflect on the current budget proposal, its potential impact on schools, and the legal strategies that could be used to stabilize the District’s finances for the long term.

Have you ever seen a budget process that was so nakedly politicized?

It was terrible. For once, there was no They don’t deserve it, they don’t need it. The budget was simply a bargaining chip.

And where will this proposed budget leave us next year?

At this point, there’s not any chance for improvement. The superintendent said he needed [over] $400 million to continue improving things, and about $216 million just to get back to last year’s level. We still have not even gotten the full $216 million.

We’ve heard a lot of criticism of the horse-trading that’s gone on with this budget. But the pension issue Gov. Corbett has raised is serious, right?

Pensions are an increasingly large cost for districts. This isn’t necessarily because the pensions promised were too high, although they’re certainly substantial. But state legislators have decided at least twice not to contribute as much as needed.

By my calculations, in the last three years, $1.3 billion has been taken out of classrooms or shifted to local taxes because of the state’s failure to provide pension funding. Nothing I’ve seen in the governor’s proposal would fix that, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t something real here.

What other legislative or policy fixes could help settle the District’s long-term finances?

There are lots. The charter funding formula is absolutely crazy, one of the worst in the country.

But that’s small potatoes compared to our single biggest problem – the state puts in too small a share of funding. Pennsylvania appropriates about 35 percent of the cost of public education. Pennsylvania needs to get up to about 50 percent of the cost of education.

And while they’re figuring that out, they need to calculate real costs – like the cost of educating kids in poverty. When you do that, you’ll take care of the problems. Everything else is just cosmetic – moving around the deck chairs on the Titanic, as people like to say.

We do actually have a commission to look into a new funding formula that’ll start this summer. But we know the solutions. It’s not a mystery. What’s lacking is political will.

What about the city? Is it contributing enough?

Philadelphia used to be near the bottom of local contributions. Now we’re contributing above the median of the rest of the state. This is clearly now a state problem, not a Philadelphia problem.

Last time we had a funding formula, it didn’t last. Is there any way to compel legislators to use whatever they create?

Most other states have found that the judiciary will step in and say that the constitution [which in Pennsylvania requires a “a thorough and efficient system of public education”] has to be upheld.

In the 1990s, Pennsylvania’s judiciary decided they would not step in. They had some reasons why, but many of those have changed.

For example, we don’t have local control at the level we used to. The state now sets graduation standards. The state sets testing standards. The state tells districts how they have to spend money.

Therefore, there are much stronger grounds for judicial intervention to make sure that the state is providing adequate funding. That’s my thought on the matter. We’ll have to see whether the judiciary agrees.

Any other legal levers Philadelphians can use to move the legislature one way or another?

In special education, there are clear requirements for what must be provided. If you really force schools to provide it, that will strain the system financially, force more of a budget crisis, and drive home the fact that we’re not providing enough funds to meet the requirements of the law.

And if there are further budget cuts in the fall that endanger students’ health and safety, or force the school year to be shorter than 180 days required, there could be additional lawsuits.

You’ve been down this road before. Twenty years ago you won a settlement in a desegregation case that called for more equitable funding. But what followed was a state takeover, not a big funding increase. Any lessons from that?

The “deseg” case failed because the state was not in the room. They persuaded the courts that they could not be added to the case and that the problems fell solely on the District, which did not have the funds to make the changes. The lesson from that case is, all the players need to be included in whatever the litigation is.

Another party that wasn’t in the room for the “deseg” case was the union. You told me once that you wish they’d been there, so that the judgment could have forced them to make some changes in teacher placement, so that troubled schools didn’t always get the least experienced teachers.

That was a problem. I think there are solutions [to seniority concerns] that are acceptable to the union. But then people start bargaining for something else. And those other issues take control.

Let’s go back to charter finances. What are some policy changes that could stabilize the whole system?

There’s a whole range of numbers that need to be looked at so that there’s some relationship to cost.

For example, charters have been paid for special education at a rate that’s completely phony, year after year. Chester gets paid $36,000 per special-ed student. But most of them are getting “language and occupational therapy” once a week. That’s a minimal expense.

The cyber charters, which are the fastest-growing section of the charter movement, don’t have any of the same costs as brick-and-mortar charters, but they get the same money. The state hasn’t been able to fix that one, even though the auditor general has been writing reports about it for six years. It’s a complete waste of valuable resources.

And then, there needs to be a complete new set of transparency rules, so we know what charters are spending and accomplishing, and we don’t have the kind of waste and fraud we’ve seen.

What’s your plan to influence the governor’s race this fall?

I believe that by the fall, we’ll be engaged in the kind of litigation like we talked about, to lay out the facts as to why 50 percent of the schools in Pennsylvania do not meet the standards the state has set for itself.

That’s a massive failure, and it’s closely related to underfunding – which has been known since 2007, when the state issued a report about real costs. We’ll bring that to the attention of the courts and the public.

The counter-argument is that we need to reduce costs, not spend more. Why shouldn’t Philadelphia be thinking about strategically increasing charter enrollment? Would that drive costs down?

There’s no evidence that that really does, or that it’s sustainable over any length of time. That strategy relies on churn — lots of young teachers who turn over constantly. That is the enemy of a slow-and-steady progress model.

In Chester, for example, they have the largest charter population of any district in the state [by percentage], but they’re no further ahead than other students. But it does cost a great deal more, and a lot of that money is being funneled off into private payrolls.

I think everybody’s been surprised at some of the good things we’ve seen in charters that can be used in regular schools.

But we need to find ways that we adapt those, rather than create so much change that it sets back progress. We don’t want a two-tiered system. We don’t want public schools to be only for those who can’t figure out how to get out of them. What happens inevitably as you privatize is, things become stratified. To me, that would be far too high a price to pay.

This conversation was edited for length and clarity.


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