This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia is opening the school year with hard-won labor peace and a small fund balance, representing a window of stability that Superintendent William Hite finds gratifying and hopeful.
“I am looking forward to starting the year without a looming crisis and excited about the fact that we have contracts with all our major labor unions,” Hite said in an interview last week. He also pointed to other achievements: progress toward the goal of having more children read proficiently by grade 4, an uptick in the graduation rate, and the opening of two new schools.
In June, Hite achieved his goal from last year of finally reaching a settlement with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose members worked for four years without a new contract and five years without a raise. And the principals’ union just recently agreed to a new contract after rejecting one 16 months ago.
“We’re not starting the year with the elimination of something, the cutting of something, the reduction of something, but instead starting with investments of $526 million” over five years to maintain sufficient levels of counselors and nurses, upgrade some early childhood classrooms and install hydration stations in each school, among other improvements.
But fiscal disaster is nevertheless lurking around the corner. Without new sources of revenue from the state or the city, the District is projecting a shortfall of $138 million at the end of fiscal 2019 and a nearly $1 billion shortfall by 2022.
And calls are escalating for the School Reform Commission to vote by November to disband and initiate the return of the District to local control before next year’s gubernatorial election. Advocates fear that a Republican victory would further erode state school aid for Philadelphia and other poor districts that don’t have enough local revenue to maintain good schools.
Harrisburg continues its political stalemate over providing districts across the commonwealth with sufficient and stable revenue, maintaining its record of being one of the worst states in the nation when it comes to funding education adequately and equitably.
And whether City Council has the will or the means to provide more money for schools is yet to be seen. District leaders made a calculated decision this year not to ask City Council for a tax increase for schools, but instead to present themselves as good fiscal stewards.
“We have and will continue to spend an exorbitant amount of time with all funders, in the city and Harrisburg, and continue to work with them ensuring that we have predictable, sustainable, recurrent revenue,” Hite said. “That’s the way we solve our structural problem. We don’t control revenue, we only control spending. Our ability to do this will be based on the will of those in elected positions to generate more revenue to maintain the investments we’ve made.”
While the District in the last few years has been making targeted investments in classrooms, most of the increases in its $3 billion budget go to costs that it doesn’t control – pensions, charter growth, and debt service. Its expenditures far exceed its available revenue – the so-called “structural deficit” that exists despite temporary fund balances of the last few years.
“What can’t happen is peeling back investments in schools,” Hite said.
Shortly after Hite arrived five years ago, Harrisburg under Gov. Tom Corbett slashed education aid, and the superintendent was forced to cut essential services such as nurses and counselors from schools. Art and music teachers grew scarce. Average class size, already large compared to the suburbs, crept up.
“If the structural problem is not addressed, we will be faced with decisions we faced three years ago,” Hite said.
As activists grow increasingly vocal, Hite has not been in the forefront of calls for fair funding, preferring to operate behind the scenes. He likes to remind people that Philadelphia, unlike every other district in the state, has no power of its own over revenue.
On the issue of whether the SRC should be disbanded in favor of a locally controlled board of education, Hite is agnostic.
“I generally don’t comment on governance,” he said. “Whether it is a commission or a school board, appointed, elected, or some hybrid, whatever the governmental structure is employs me.”
Although he is for local control in principle, he says, he is not sure that a change in governance would solve the District’s problems. “Of all the hard things we’ve had to do, those things would not have changed because the governance structure is different. Those things would have changed with one thing, and that is more funding.”
Activists are increasingly vocal about fair school funding as a matter of justice. Hite has not generally discussed the funding issue in those terms, but he said he agrees.
“It’s unjust that Pennsylvania is number one in the aid ratio imbalance for rich and poor districts,” he said, referring to the fact that the gaps in spending between the wealthiest and poorest districts in the state are the largest in the nation. He also called it an “inherent injustice” that the state’s fair funding formula only applies to increases in state aid, not to the entire amount, and that so-called “hold harmless” provisions still exist that ensure that no district gets less money than it did the year before, even if enrollment shrinks or other circumstances change.
The work by the legislature on fair funding in Pennsylvania, he said, “while appreciated, is insufficient to resolve the issue for districts like Philadelphia, with high concentrations of English learners and high concentration of children in circumstances of poverty.”
Issues of equity within the District are also coming to the fore, as shown by the District’s reiteration of its policy on uniforms last week. Some neighborhood schools were requiring students to buy specific uniform items with logos, while others had loose dress code requirements and enforcement. Some schools with the strictest – and most expensive –uniform requirements were those with the most low-income student bodies.
Meanwhile, Hite said that achieving a contract with the teachers after such a long stalemate is a game-changer.
“I’ve been walking in and out of classrooms, speaking to staff, and there is a very different feel in the schools this year,” he said. “Individuals are excited about welcoming students back. There is a lot of positive energy. They are working on their rooms and thankful for the contract.”
The District is moving forward in other areas, he noted. For one thing, it is opening two new schools, both with outside partnerships. Vaux High School will reopen in Sharswood as a project-based high school in collaboration with Big Picture Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and the teachers’ union. Parkway Center City will become Parkway Middle College High School and offer students the chance to graduate not only with diplomas, but also with associate’s degrees and up to two professional certifications. Vaux will be a neighborhood school, while Parkway Center City will be a selective admission school.
In another innovative partnership, 22 social workers through the city Department of Behavioral Health will be placed in schools to work with teachers using best practices to promote overall well-being. Social workers that are placed in schools now generally work with specific programs and specific students.
Last year, after the election of Donald Trump as president, the District held immigrant town hall meetings to “create a space for individuals who voice their worries and concerns." This year, the District has prepared a social studies curriculum about the white nationalists and their opponents protesting in Charlottesville, Virginia, and rising racial tensions, Hite said. This is “designed to have children talk about their feelings, which will go hand-in-hand” with disciplinary approaches that turn away from punishment and toward restorative practices and the promotion of positive behavior in schools. There will be a social studies curriculum for each grade, he said.
Hite also weighed in on other issues:
School closures – “We are currently analyzing whether or not to make recommendations about school closures.” He said that even if enrollment stays constant, “we would still need to close a number of schools; we still have more schools than we need.”
Charter schools – Under state law, the District has limited control over charter growth. Several schools continue to operate without signed charters.
Now that the School Reform Commission is back at full strength, with five members, it should be able to act on charter school recommendations that have been languishing for more than a year involving two prominent community organizations, Aspira and Universal Companies. Four schools operated by the two groups have been recommended for nonrenewal, including Audenried and Olney High Schools.
“The SRC could not take action when they did not have five commissioners,” Hite said. A deadlock would send the decision to the state Charter Appeal Board. “The CAB becomes the de facto decision maker,” he said. “Now that they have five commissioners, they should take a vote as quickly as possible.”
Facilities – Hite has made strategic investments in upgrading several early childhood classrooms, but overall maintenance of the District’s aging inventory of buildings is seriously behind. An assessment last year put the total cost of fully maintaining and updating its nearly 300 buildings at close to $5 billion. “The reason we did the assessment is to have a way to prioritize,” he said.
Fixing leaky roofs and making sure a building is kept dry and warm (or cool) is important, he said, but it is also important that teachers and parents see work on upgrading instruction “and show [them] what classrooms can become when you make investments.”
Hite will open the school year Tuesday morning and ring the ceremonial bell at Pennell Elementary School in North Philadelphia, one of the schools that received the upgraded classrooms.