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The path forward: Q&A with Donna Cooper of Public Citizens for Children and Youth

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

Equitable education funding has long been one of Donna Cooper’s top priorities. As Gov. Ed Rendell’s chief of policy, she was instrumental in 2008 in establishing the state’s most recent stab at creating a workable and predictable education funding formula.

That formula didn’t survive the arrival of Gov. Corbett. But Cooper, now in her second year at the helm of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, believes that with the right political pressure, another version might not be too far off.

“A school funding formula is not brain surgery,” she says. “If the legislature feels the heat … they’ll do it.”

But creating a formula is one thing; getting the funds to support it is another. We asked Cooper to reflect on this year’s budget process, the strategic approach that could establish a fully funded formula, and the prospects of long-term stability for Philadelphia’s schools.

Was this year’s budget process more politicized than usual, or is it just that we saw the politics more clearly?

This was a particularly troubling and alarming budget process. Districts across the region are crumbling under charter school cost increases, special-ed cost increases, and pension fund increases, but the state put barely any money on the table.

That is a very troubling sign of the disconnect between voters and the political elite. There’s a lack of awareness of the No. 1 issue on voters’ minds.

What makes this disconnect possible?

Partly, it’s because people are not connected with the Harrisburg process. Most people don’t know their state representatives and state senators; it’s not commonly understood that schools are funded by the state.

So people turn their attention to the thing that’s most familiar — their principal, or the SRC, or 440 [N. Broad St., i.e. District headquarters]. In fact, anger directed at Harrisburg would have a much greater chance of impact.

There’s a lot of talk about the state revenue streams that could help close the funding gap. What do you think are the most likely candidates?

I think shale is by far the most likely tax to happen. There’s already bipartisan support. GOP leaders were sponsoring shale tax bills. So it’s a top contender.

But the question is, what will happen with those revenues? Will the shale tax get dedicated for education? That’s still really up for debate.

Last time we had a formula, it didn’t last. What’s the best way to make one stick?

“Stick” is a relative term — there’s no such thing as something sticking. Every legislature can change the laws of a prior legislature.

So, really, it’s about passing a formula that works for districts and the legislature. If you build consensus and put the resources behind it, it’ll work and stick around.

Every state probably needs to revisit its formula every 10 years. The wealth of the state changes, the revenue capacity of local districts changes, the students change. That happens in most states. Pennsylvania’s one of three states without a formula, and most states aren’t revising their formulas every three or four years.

Who benefits most from the lack of a formula?

First, every House and Senate member from a district that isn’t reliant on state revenues wins — it doesn’t harm them either way. The anti-tax-pledge, Grover Norquist guys are very happy not to have a formula.

And in the case of special education, what we saw is that charter schools are really happy when there’s very little formula – they make more money under a laissez-faire situation.

The thing that’s very unusual this year is that you have Tea Party guys that are very happy that we didn’t do a tax increase, but they’re also in communities where there’s consternation about cuts. That’s probably going to play out on Corbett more than them.

The advocates of traditional public education were quite vocal this budget season – the reform and charter sectors seemed quieter. Did I miss something?

They were advocating and speaking to legislators about funding. I won’t say that they weren’t helpful – but I’ll say that they could have done more.

I think that to some extent the pain that the charters are going to feel is still not clear to them. So, some were not at the table, and many were involved in the special-ed fight. That was pennies. They were missing the big fight on basic education funding, which seemed to me ill-advised and shortsighted on their part.

On the other hand, they pissed off so many people in the special-ed fight that it was not advantageous for them to be more vocal in the general-ed fight.

Looking forward, do you see a common interest between the charter and traditional public education communities? As the fight for funding moves ahead, can the two sides work more effectively together?

Everybody has a common interest – it’s all a bottom-line issue. The charters that care about education are going to be at the table because they need to be.

I don’t think it’s that complicated as for how they’ll work together – charters were actively engaged in getting the cigarette tax conversation going in City Council, and getting it to pass. Some were there in Harrisburg.

There’s a set of charters that are in it as a business proposition, so whatever happens, happens; they just have to make sure their business’s bottom line works.

Besides the formula, what are some policy and legislative fixes that need to happen to stabilize the District financially?

Everything pales in comparison to how the $5.5 billion [basic education subsidy] is distributed. Just to put it in context, charter reimbursements were $350 million. Basic ed is $5.5 billion and needs to be closer to $7 billion. It’s the Big Kahuna.

But at a much smaller level, we need a reasonable charter reimbursement system. We need the state to meet its obligations to make pension payments affordable to districts. We need to think about how we’re adequately funding special education.

There’s a set of reforms that need to happen. Some are moving along, like teacher evaluation. But we still need to think about reforms at the state level that could ensure better use of resources.

Tell me a bit about the dynamics of the regional funding formula coalition and the key questions it needs to take up as its work gets started.

It’s very broad – about 35 organizations, and more people could join us. It includes business organizations, unions, municipal organizations, educational organizations — and that means we have to get clear on what we mean when we talk about school funding.

So we have agreed that, when we talk about funding, we’re talking about the basic-ed formula. Other elements of school funding may need some reforms as well, but this is the big enchilada.

When we talk about fairness, we want to be looking not just at the disparity in expenditures between districts, but the disparity in tax burden and the degree to which we have a system that’s fair to taxpayers.

We’ll be talking about stability, predictability, and clarity of purpose. Is the basic-ed formula the vehicle through which the state makes up the shortfall districts have in their pension payments? Or are pensions a different conversation?

Those are the kinds of conversations we’ve been having internally.

With statewide elections coming up in November, what are your plans for the fall? How will PCCY try to influence the conversation?

Fall is way, way off for us! On Aug. 4th we’re taking buses to Harrisburg, trying to get the cigarette tax passed.

But in the fall we’re going to be spending a lot of time in the Philly suburbs, talking to residents in communities of elected officials who are going to be important in the funding conversation.

We’ll be doing a lot of outreach to make sure state representatives and senators understand the importance of a funding formula that’s backed by resources. We’ll be doing some research to show the disparity between what they need in their school districts, versus what they have.

In most cases, suburban districts are far from where they need to be.

Looking down the road, is it possible — three, four, five years — that we could get to a substantially more stable place? Lately, things seem to be trending hard in the other direction. What’s the path to someplace more settled?

I don’t think you have to wait five years. A school funding formula is not brain surgery. And from 2002 to 2010 [during the Rendell administration], we didn’t have chaos every year. This is a new phenomenon.

And yes, the District was in crisis during the economic downturn, but that was a local funding issue, not a state issue. The District wanted to spend more than it had, but it was making progress every year. And there were no school closings and there were no 5,000 layoffs.

The real issue is revenue – that’s what changes the terms.

If the legislature feels the heat from the conditions they’ve created, and they have public support for something that takes this off the table for a few years, they’ll do it.

This current crisis is manufactured by the current administration’s approach to school funding, and it’s one of the reasons the current administration is risking not being elected again.

That is not lost on House and Senate members. They want a way out. I think if the next governor can build relationships with the legislature, you’ll see movement very quickly. There’s no reason it should take three to five years. If it does, in my mind, that will mean people have not put enough pressure on the political process.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.


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