Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Perfect Storm Undermining Philadelphia's Schools

Over the past few months, we have been blogging on multiple different forces undermining Philadelphia’s schools: budget cuts, school closures, and the loss of students to charter schools.  Now add to that list the federal government shut-down, which puts certain education programs in jeopardy, and the death of a 12 year old girl after a full a day at school in which she was sick but unable to see a nurse because she was not on staff that day.  Apparently, budget cuts had prompted the district to cut the nurse's work days back to two a week.  The grief-stricken father blames his daughter's death on the budget cuts. 

The situation has gotten so bad that national civil rights leaders came together on Friday in a united front to chastise the state for the chaos reigning in the Philadelphia schools, which is somewhat remarkable.  The internal workings of individual school districts, even big ones, rarely garner the attention of multiple civil rights group.  Wake County, North Carolina and Memphis, TN have gone through some of the most significant student assignment policies affecting integration in the country, with relatively little being said by national organizations.  Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, however, remarked "Pennsylvania has become a national model of dysfunction in education." The immediate call by civil rights groups is to restore previously agreed upon funding levels to the schools.

A few short years ago, Governor Rendell had set the state on a trajectory of increased and progressive funding in the state, but the election of Tom Corbett lead to a reversal of those policies.  But as suggested above, Philadelphia is at the center of a perfect storm that has included far more than budget cuts.  Today’s budget cuts are just one more step along a very long path in

which the state has never been willing to fully and consistently commit to its public education system.  Prior to Rendell’s initiative, Pennsylvania was but one of two or three states in the country that did not have a funding formula.  While other states’ formulas may not have always ensured equity, they have all, for some time, been based on real data points, like student enrollment and tax revenues.  Pennsylvania, in contrast, has traditionally allocated school funding by a system, if one can call it a system, that more closely resembled the divvying up of political spoils and pulling the patronage amounts out of the air.  Although the current focus is the actual dollar amount that Philadelphia schools have lost this year, the underlying fundamental problem is that the state is abandoning the new formula approach to return to its spoils approach.  In other words, Pennsylvania has long been a state that assumed it could manage schools by fiat.  Moreover, unlike the majority of courts in the country, Pennsylvania’s courts had been completely unwilling to place limits on random school funding and uphold students’ right to education under the state constitution.  With this abysmal history, Pennsylvania’s neighborhoods with the weakest schools, like Philadelphia, have seen large percentages of students fleeing the public schools.  Some of the places to which they have fled are even worse, such as the state’s virtual charter school, which was recently the subject of federal indictments for misuse of public funds.  Nonetheless, it is far from clear that these students will be coming back even if the money does.

In short, while Philadelphia schools are in desperate need of money, they are also in desperate need of educational policies that evidence a holistic commitment to public education. 


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