District progress was fueled by funding increases

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Back in 2000, the School District of Philadelphia was struggling with stagnating test scores, a systemwide academic crisis, and looming bankruptcy. Schools were scraping by on an austerity budget that amounted to less than $7,800 per student.

But five years later, the School District in 2005 found itself able to spend almost 40 percent more – $10,800 per pupil, an increase of $3,000 per student.

Over those five years between 2000 and 2005, the rate of growth in District spending per student averaged a hefty 7 percent a year, according to data from the state Department of Education.

And those significant annual increases in spending per student were soon accompanied by significant annual increases in test scores, at least on most tests in the K-8 grades.

Funding increases fueled a sweeping set of reform measures undertaken by CEO Paul Vallas and the School Reform Commission starting in 2002, including a new standardized curriculum and textbooks, afterschool programs, a benchmark testing system, new teacher coaches – even smaller class sizes.

By contrast, the earlier period of austerity reflected that starting in the mid-1990s and through the superintendency of David Hornbeck, the growth in Philadelphia’s per pupil spending had averaged only 3 percent a year, hardly enough to cover inflation. In those years, the District engaged in a war of words with Harrisburg over the sluggish growth in state support for schools.

The critical role that increased funding has played in the recent accomplishments of the School District is drawing attention now, as the District faces its most difficult budget season since the system emerged from near-bankruptcy in 2002.

“It appears that we are dangerously close to sliding backwards – yet again – to losing the gains that slowly but decidedly have been made,” said Shelly Yanoff, executive director of the child advocacy group Philadelphia Citizens for Children and Youth in testimony on the District budget at an April School Reform Commission meeting.

“We understand that some schools are making plans to increase class size, to combine grade levels, to reduce adult resources in schools,” Yanoff said. “In short, we hear that schools that are making progress are going to have to jeopardize that progress by going against what research and practice tells them is working – because the budget is being cut.”

Despite the recent growth spurt in funding, the School District’s per pupil funding level still consistently ranks near the bottom among the 63 school districts in the five-county region. That spurt was based in part on an increment in both state and city funding resulting from the negotiated state takeover in 2001-02, as well as a $300 million deficit financing move by the city, which provided a financial cushion that has now been largely depleted.

A relatively poor school system, the District still has difficulty trimming its budget without jeopardizing vital personnel and programs, as protests by parents and others this spring have highlighted. The District’s $2.04 billion budget plan for 2006-07 requires cuts to balance out rising costs in areas such as employee benefits, debt service, and charter schools that together far exceed any anticipated increases in revenues.

District officials say their projections are realistic but acknowledge uncertainty about how next year’s budget will end up. Even assuming that the state legislature fully endorses the significant funding increases provided in Governor Rendell’s state budget proposal, Philadelphia must make reductions in a variety of programs, including a 5 percent across-the-board cut to school-based budgets.

SRC Chairman James Nevels noted that cuts have affected every school. “We are in a budgetary crunch,” he said.

“This budget – and really our last two budgets have stretched me,” said CEO Paul Vallas, who acknowledged his inability to add art and music teachers and added that “it has impacted my ability to do class size reduction.”

Ann Listerud, a parent at the Powel School in West Philadelphia, characterized the situation as “a school district in crisis.” Powel parents have been demanding a commitment from the District to restore budget cuts at the school that they say amount to $190,000.

“We know something is seriously wrong when the District has to make drastic cuts to an excellent performing school with a 40-year history,” said Listerud, who serves on Powel’s school council. “What further disturbs us are the stories we are hearing from our parent-grandparent population who work in schools around the District – stories about SSAs, ESOL, Special Ed, music, drama and classroom teachers, all being let go.”

Both School District officials and education advocates have turned their attention to the state budget process, which often drags out till the end of June.

One issue is a $25 million annual line item in the state budget earmarked to support privately managed schools in Philadelphia that was deleted by the state House. District and local officials say they still hope the funds will be restored.

“If we lose that $25 million, I’m not going to cut afterschool and summer school programs in order to finance the EMOs [education management organizations],” Vallas said.

Meanwhile, a newly formed coalition of 10 Pennsylvania organizations is calling on candidates for state office to pledge to increase the state share of public education costs to 60 percent from the current 36 percent.

The “Statewide Coalition to Close the Gap,” which is highlighting what it calls “gross disparities” in spending among districts in the state, compared spending per pupil in Philadelphia to the average spent by the top one-fifth of school districts in the state. They found that Philadelphia’s spending lags this group of high-performing school districts by more than $2,700 per pupil, according to Michael Churchill of the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia.