For Philly schools, state control didn't mean more state dollars, data show

After 16 years of state control of Philadelphia schools, Mayor Kenney announced the end of the School Reform Commission last week in City Council Chambers.

In announcing the city’s move to take back control of Philadelphia schools, Mayor Kenney said last week that the state wasn’t upholding its end of the bargain to address the district’s chronic funding woes.

The point of the School Reform Commission “was, well, these legislators don’t trust us spending their money,” Kenney said during a meeting with the Inquirer and Daily News Editorial Boards. But, he said, since the commission was created 16 years ago, “we’ve lost money.”

An analysis of data from the state Department of Education showed that the commission’s creation in 2001 did not altered a situation that predated it: Philadelphia has received less state school aid than its standing as one of Pennsylvania’s poorer communities would merit,  if that money were distributed according to need.

In exchange for a greater say in the operation of Philadelphia schools, Pennsylvania agreed to provide additional funding to help the district stave off its budget crisis.

Yet in the last decade, the amount of state money distributed to Philadelphia schools — about $1.5 billion — has remained nearly the same, when adjusted for inflation. In terms of per-pupil subsidy, Philadelphia ranked 225th among the commonwealth’s 501 districts in the 2015-16 school year; in 2010, it was No. 139.

Historically, equity has eluded the school funding system. For much of the last three decades, Pennsylvania didn’t use a formula to determine how much of a subsidy each district should receive, instead sending money to districts based on what they got the year before.

While the state adopted a formula under Gov. Ed Rendell in 2008, it was short-lived. Facing a budget deficit three years later, Gov. Tom Corbett and lawmakers cut school funding in ways that had a disproportionate impact on Philadelphia.

That ranking has continued to fall, even as Philadelphia has grown poorer compared with other Pennsylvania districts. Despite recent bumps in property values and gentrification, as of the 2015-16 year it ranked as the state’s 57th poorest district, based on market value and personal income.

While Philadelphia gets more money from the state overall than any other district, “there are many, many districts that are wealthier that get more money” per student, said Michael Masch, a former chief financial officer of the Philadelphia School District who is now chief financial officer at Howard University.

Part of the reason is the state’s longstanding practice of ensuring that no district receives less aid than it did the year before.

Even though lawmakers agreed on a new funding formula two years ago to send more aid to districts with needier students, it applied only to a small portion of state aid to districts.

The formula is being challenged by school districts, including William Penn in Delaware County, in a lawsuit that was recently allowed to proceed to trial by the state Supreme Court.

For Philadelphia, “it’s hard to argue that the loss of local control, which every other school in the commonwealth has, can be justified based on what the state has actually done with respect to funding and support for the Philadelphia schools,” said Masch, a former school board member who became one of the five original School Reform Commission members in 2001. “The state has not made good on its part of the bargain.”

The city had little choice at the time but to accept the deal. In 2001, Philadelphia had high student-teacher ratios, inadequate funding for textbooks, and “massive” deferred maintenance costs, Masch said.

State officials, meanwhile, were raising questions, said Donna Cooper, executive director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth, an education-advocacy group, citing “a growing sentiment that every penny sent to Philadelphia was wasted.” The commission gave the state more confidence in the district, she said.

“Did it result in Philadelphia finally getting the amount of resources that any reasonable school funding formula would indicate it should get? No,” said Cooper, who was Philadelphia’s deputy mayor for policy and planning at the time of the SRC’s formation, and who went on to work for Rendell at the state level. “But it didn’t shut the faucet off.”

In recent years, the city’s funding of Philadelphia schools has accelerated, outpacing increases in state funding. State revenue accounted for close to 50 percent of the district’s budget in 2014-15, compared with 42 percent in local funding.

With a $1 billion deficit in the School District’s budget looming over the next five years, Kenney said the city is going to have to chip in more. How he proposes to do that isn’t yet clear.

“If I were to give you scenarios now of funding, you’re going to start ripping them apart,” the mayor said during the editorial boards meeting. He said the city would announce its funding plan with its budget proposal next year.

Cooper said tax increases would burden “lots of poor and working-class people here,” though “I’m not sure we have another choice given the politics in Pennsylvania.”

Still, Philadelphia “will definitely need more help from the state going forward, too,” she said.

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