More than a hundred students, teachers, parents, community members and labor activists rallied Monday at Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett’s Philadelphia office, demanding an equitable education funding formula.
Philadelphia was one of 90 cities nationwide in which education advocates gathered to stage events designed to highlight “how dis-investment in public education is damaging our communities.”
In the wintry dusk of South Broad Street, the group halted traffic as it chanted call-and-response attacks on the governor’s education record, later marching around City Hall as both the temperature and the light fell in the frigid December air.
The formula would be fair, advocates say, if the state used a transparent, data-driven metric when portioning out its education budget to its 500 school districts.
The ideal metric would divert more cash to school districts tasked with serving a higher percentage of students thought to be more expensive to educate -– those in poverty, with a disability, or still learning English, they say.
“Pennsylvania is one of three states that doesn’t have one,” said Jerry Jordan, president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers. “We need a formula.”
This type of formula, advocates say, would go a long way toward improving educational outcomes in urban districts such as Philadelphia.
“I’m not talking about any frills,” said Jordan, “but the kind of services and programs that children have in schools in surrounding districts.”
Shifting sources of school funds
Under former Gov. Ed Rendell, Pennsylvania implemented a funding formula in 2008.
That formula took into account the number of students in each district, community poverty levels, percentage of English language learners and the local tax effort – allocating relatively more funding to districts that were larger, poorer, and had higher property taxes.
Rendell implemented the changes based on a 2007 costing out study that was guided by one question: How much resources do schools need to meet the state’s academic performance expectations?
The study found that the state needed to spend another $4.4 billion annually — $1 billion more in Philadelphia alone — to adequately fund the education of Pennsylvania’s students.
In an attempt to meet those figures, Rendell set out to increase the state’s basic-education contribution by $2.6 billion a year by 2014 – with the remainder of the money to be raised locally. But when the recession came, as state and local tax revenues dwindled, Rendell drew down state dollars and replaced them with federal stimulus funds in hopes of maintaining the trajectory of the goals he set forth based on the costing out study.
By the time the newly elected Gov. Tom Corbett was drafting his first budget in 2011, the federal stimulus funds were set to expire, and Corbett declined to increase taxes as a way of making up the difference.
As a result, in Rendell’s last year as governor, the state sent about $6.3 billion (including stimulus funding) to public school classrooms. In Corbett’s first year as governor, the state sent about $5.3 billion.
With stimulus funding gone, Corbett has increased the state’s contribution to the basic education subsidy by $1.17 billion (while, at the same time, cutting hundreds of millions of dollars from other education-related budget line-items).
Corbett’s proponents say it was foolhardy for Rendell to rely on one-time revenues from the stimulus for recurring expenses.
Pennsylvania Department of Education spokesman Timothy Eller defended Corbett’s education record. Of Monday’s event he wrote, “Unfortunately, traditional public education establishment organizations continue to misinform the public about the Governor’s record of education funding in Pennsylvania.”
Corbett’s critics say it’s disingenuous to trumpet education-funding increases when the overall amount of funding that classrooms receive hasn’t recovered, and the formula for doling out those funds has been revoked.
At this point, basic education funds are allocated by the state Legislature without any predictable, data-driven decision processes guiding the methodology.
‘Hectic, frustrating, crazy’ school year
At Monday evening’s rally, the voices in the street derided the Corbett administration’s rationale.
“I think what they’re doing to schools is a disgrace,” said Cynthia Murray-Holmes, a teacher in the Philadelphia School District for more than 30 years. Based on the district’s budget woes, she said she was shifted from fourth grade to kindergarten at A.S. Jenks this year without warning.
“Corbett clearly can find money for corporation tax breaks, or for fracking … and yet the students need schools,” said Betsy Piette whose children went through school in Upper Darby.
Dionni Martinez, a sophomore at Kensington CAPA and member of Youth United for Change, described school this year as “hectic, frustrating, crazy.”
The tension in the building this year is palpable – overworked teachers, students who feel cast aside by an uncaring system, she said.
“Every couple of days there’s a new fight; there’s a new problem with someone. Before we didn’t have fights in the school whatsoever,” the North Philly resident said. “We had peer mediation. We had counselors that talk to students and resolve conflict before it got to the point that they had to fight. We don’t have that anymore.”
PFT president Jordan called for sympathetic parties to sign his petition on moveon.org that calls for “great neighborhood public schools that are fully funded and are centers of our community.”