Thursday, September 3, 2015
Pennsylvania had long been one of those states that somehow managed to distribute money to its public schools without an actual funding formula. Rather than distributing money based on head counts, locality cost, special need students and the like, Pennsylvania funded schools through what I call the "Pittsburgh ought to get this and Philly that" method. During Governor Rendell's administration, the state, for the first time, passed a formula, which seemingly improved things a little. But during Governor Corbett's time in office, the state abandoned the formula. This in, no small part, led to the horror stories in Philadelphia, including school nurses being told they could only work one or two days a week. In 2013, on a day when the school nurse was told to stay home, a girl began exhibiting symptoms at school, which later that day would lead to her death. This along with other atrocities led the civil rights community to uncharacteristically descend on the state.
Over the past half year or so, a commission on school funding has traveled the state to seek input from districts and stakeholders on what should be done. This summer the commission submitted a proposal to the legislature, which has yet to act. But whatever legislation might come out of the state house the legislature has proven unable to keep its word in the past. The abandonment of the funding formula is case in point one. Case in point two is the crisis in Chester right now. A few years ago, teachers had to work for free because the district was so upside down in its payments to charter schools. The district is right back in the same position.Surely some of the blame falls on the district, but the larger state statutory and funding structure is the primary culprit. As Peter Greene remarked, the state is going through its yearly ritual of abusing schools by refusing to pass a budget in time to get the necessary funds to schools. In addition, the state has a perverse system of funding charter schools, which requires the local district to reimburse the charters for tuition.
Putting aside for the moment whether this reimbursement system is appropriate, the reimbursement rate is not. The state gives traditional public schools $16,000 per special education student, whereas charters get $40,000. Reimbursement at this rate is what drove Chester to brink of bankruptcy in 2012. See Chester Upland School Dist. v. Pennsylvania, 284 F.R.D. 305 (E.D.Pa. 2012). And the problem has not gotten any better because the local charters seem to be cherry picking special education students. Those that are the hardest to educate and cost the most--autistic students, for instance--are drastically under-enrolled in the charter schools, whereas the easier to educate special need students--speech and language impaired--are way over-represented in charters. In other words, the charters seem to be scooping up special education students for whom they can make a profit based on district reimbursements.
For an analysis of why this type of free market does not serve the public good and requires a series of checks, see here.
For more on Chester, see here.