Monday, January 13, 2014

The Straw That Broke the Camel's Back

With the arrival of 2014, we once again look at the possibility of a kerfuffle over who will fund the School District so that the students of the city can start the next school year with the supplies and services they need. Mixed up in the funding problems is the lack of a contract with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, whose contract ran out on September 1, 2013. At the end of the last school year, there were 23 school closures and almost 4,000 teachers and support personnel were laid off in an attempt to present a balanced budget. A sizable number of former employees are still laid off even while there is currently inadequate personnel to do the job the teachers are expected to do.

Our new superintendent of schools, Dr. William Hite, was tasked with balancing a budget that was $300 million in the hole, a Herculean task. He did so with draconian cuts. There was even a standoff with the city when Dr. Hite said he would not open schools unless he could get $60 from the city. After some back and forth, the city granted the district a loan from the city for the $60 million, and schools opened on a bare bones operation. The state did not ante up any additional money other than the $45 million they owed the federal government. This debt was forgiven by the feds on the grounds that it give the $45 million to the schools. The state did, only not all of it went to the Philly school district.

Now counselors and nurses are not a guarantee at most schools under 650 students, and there are no classroom assistants. Students with diabetes, severe asthma, and serious mental issues, are not guaranteed a medical professional in their building more than once a week. Early in the year, a child with asthma died when there was no nurse to evaluate the severity of her illness, and so she was not treated in a timely manner.

High schools as large as 4000 students limp by with only 2 counselors. College applications were previously filled out with counselor assistance through individual appointments. Now the college process is totally up to the student in some cases. Pupils who want an appointment with counselors have a three-week wait. Schools under 650 students are assigned a roving counselor who may make an appearance once every 2-3 weeks. Contrast this to Radnor School District, 10 miles away, where the high school has 7 counselors plus other employees who help in the counseling office.

When schools opened in September, sports and music were given enough money to operate until February 2014. Schools received enough supplies only for the offices to run. Teachers must supply their own paper, school supplies and even toilet paper is in short supply at many buildings. Class sizes are at the maximum levels, split-grade classes are back in vogue, there are not enough ELL teachers, and teachers struggle to teach every child in their classroom effectively with little or no support. There are no extra personnel in the schools to handle emergency situations. The principals are doing a yeoman’s job trying to keep it all together.

All that aside, the children in the schools are expected to perform proficiently on the state standardized tests and Keystone Exams. How is this possible when the schools are but shadows of their former selves? And when they do perform poorly, at whom will they point the finger? The teachers, of course!

In November 2013, a study was published by Matthew Steinberg and Rand Quinn, professors at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, on

Assessing Adequacy in Education Spending in Pennsylvania and Philadelphia. They examined the spending by each district, the poverty levels and the academic success of its students. They determined an adequacy gap, “the extent to which actual spending fell below the level necessary to provide adequate educational services to all students in a district.”  Steinberg and Quinn found that, in Philadelphia, actual amount spent was less than what was determined to be adequate by $5,478 per pupil. They add, “Despite this significant funding shortfall, the SDP does more, per pupil, with its current resources than its closest counterparts in terms of student poverty and achievement. Our findings suggest that, rather than a story of failure, the SDP is a story of possibility.”
The conclusion of the paper stated that the difference between what the state funded and what was actually needed for an adequate education, is $1.26-billion and is unevenly distributed among districts. The poorer districts, the ones with high numbers of children living in poverty and higher percentages of lower scores, had the highest adequacy gap. The paper ends with a challenge of sorts to the state to provide more funding. 

“The SDP…is doing significantly more in terms of achievement than its nearest counterparts—and it is doing so with significantly less money per pupil. Although additional research is necessary to discover the reasons for these differences, our preliminary findings suggest that if the SDP were provided the adequate level of resources to educate the district’s students, it could make great strides in improving the academic achievement for all of the district’s students. In an era when Pennsylvania is searching for ways to do more with less at all levels of government, investing in the SDP and in Philadelphia’s public school students appears to make good economic sense.”

A woefully under-funded school district, Philadelphia has actually been under state control since the year 2000. Representing the state control, a School Reform Commission (SRC) runs the schools, and oversees the day-in and day-out operations, but has no taxing power. The Mayor, City Council, and the state government decides how much money the school district gets.. During the SRC’s tenure as school district overseers, our deficit has bloomed from $70 million to $300 million. Part of the problem is the reduction of $1 billion from the state’s education budget two years ago, and another part is wasteful spending, especially by a couple of horrible superintendents. The third part is the inequality of the funding formula established by the state, one which relies totally on property values. This makes for wildly different per pupil spending amounts. Kristin Graham of the Philadelphia Inquirer reports that the latest data show that in 2011-12, the last year for which figures are available, Philadelphia had $5,766 less per pupil than Radnor to educate needier students: spending was $18,117 per student in Radnor, $12,351 per student in Philadelphia, according to state data. 

Indeed, to the teachers, the chief task of the School Reform Commission (SRC) seems to be the establishment of charter schools. Even though charters have carte blanche to run their schools the way they see fit, they are considered public schools and get their share of the pot from the school district’s now-paltry sum. Cyber Charters pull even more money from the schools at the same rate as regular charter school, even though they have a much smaller overhead. The result was a multi-million dollar budget shortfall and the slashing of budgets for the 2013-14 year.  And the teachers’ union still doesn’t have a contract. It seems as though the teachers’ union will be expected to carry the district on its back for an extraordinarily large sum of money. The district expects the teachers to take up to a 15% pay cut and pay 25% of their medical benefits, even while their workload has been increased, seniority abolished and no support is available.

The Governor has already told the school district that it won’t get any more money until the union is brought down. They are really trying their darnedest to make that happen this year. We need a rallying cry, one that will he heard throughout the city and state.

Right now, all I can think of is:

We’re mad as hell and we’re not gonna take it any more!

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