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#PHLed101: How Philly’s schools got where they are today

How the Philadelphia school system operates is unique from any other district in the state, especially how it’s funded, and how that funding has changed over the last several decades.

The state runs the district through its School Reform Commission (that acronym, “SRC,” is getting a lot of hate these days), there are more charter schools here than anywhere else in the state, and, oh yeah, the district is broke.

It’s complicated. Let’s get back to the basics and review what the school system is and how we even got here.

You have my attention. Why’s this important right now?

On Oct. 6, the SRC unilaterally cancelled the teachers’ union contracts. So starting in December, they were going to have to pay a 13 percent chunk of their own health insurance. That’s a price they haven’t had to pay before.

But the union got a big win in court recently. A judge granted an injunction so everybody’s lawyers (taxpayer- and union-dues-funded!) a chance to hash things out.

(You can follow along on Billy Penn with the SRC story here.)

Back up. What’s the SRC again?

The School Reform Commission is a five-person board that answers to the state, but is tasked with running the Philadelphia School District and solving its financial crisis. Three of the board’s members are appointed by the governor, and two are appointed by the mayor. The SRC takes the place of a traditional school board.

Why doesn’t Philly have a regular school board that we can vote for?

For some unknown reason, Philadelphia has never operated with an elected school board. (The Notebook goes more in-depth on this issue here.)  But in 2001, when the school district was going through another financial crisis, the state took over.

That was after the school district’s superintendent at the time called out the state for not giving enough money to Philadelphia, and even accused them of racist policies. But remember: the SRC is very different from an elected school board — because of that status, it can’t levy local taxes.

Well then where does the district’s money come from?

The district’s funds come from a variety of sources, but about half of its operating budget comes from the state. About 10 percent of the school’s budget comes from the federal government, but that’s part of what caused the current problem.

Between 2009 and 2011, Pennsylvania raked in $1.3 billion in education stimulus funds and almost half of that went directly to the ailing Philadelphia School District. Once that was over, the district received another $11M from the feds due to another program.

Because of those increased funds, then-Gov. Ed Rendell decided to cut back on state aid to the school district.

Since then, the federal stimulus has ended, but the state hasn’t restored its funding to levels it was at previously. Hence the teachers’ union’s issues with Gov. Tom Corbett.

OK, that’s *part* of the problem. What’s the other part?

A reduction in state aid is certainly one of the major issues plaguing the district’s financial office. But charter schools have proven to be a large burden on the school district — more than many originally thought it would be.

Wait a sec. How do these “charter schools” I keep seeing work?

Pennsylvania’s charter law passed in the late 90’s, and basically what it allowed is for public pop-up schools to open that act as their own, separate school district. These schools were expected to fuel innovation, and give parents more options in terms of where they could send their kids.

Oh, and they’ve got fewer rules — they can create their own classes, hire teachers at their own pace and they sometimes have longer school days.

Philadelphia became the state’s largest testing site for the charter school community; there are about 80 here. Most admit students through a lottery system.

OK, anyway, a burden on the district…

So because charter schools are technically public schools, their budgets have to come from somewhere… the Philly School District. The district pays charters for every student that leaves its public schools.

This has caused problems in the already-underfunded public schools. About 30 percent of the school’s money goes to charters, which educate about a third of the city’s students.

Gotcha. Well, haven’t they tried to fix these problems?

Over the last 20 years, there have been plenty of efforts to reform the school district, but as The Notebook points out, there’s been little progress. The district still struggles to educate low-income and minority students and sees a disappointing percentage of students moving on to college. The last 20 years of reform is explained here.

What are they trying to do now to fix this?

Everyone kind of agrees that the current model is too broken to fix. A complete overhaul of the system is likely needed so that the school district can stop just scraping by.

A state Basic Education Commission that was formed that is trying to do just that — change how public schools and charters are funded.

For now, the district continues to lobby Harrisburg for more money, or at least a return to pre-stimulus levels. Meanwhile, legislators and city officials are feuding over whether the SRC goes or stays.

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