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Get schooled on #PHLed: 5 things we learned at the State of Young Philly event

Correction appended

Between the SRC deciding to unilaterally ditch teachers’ contracts and a constant battle between the state and the city over education funding, Philadelphia schools are a hot topic.

It’s a complex system, unique to Philly. To help, Philly CORE Leaders, a group of young leaders and entrepreneurs working to “change the narrative” around Philadelphia education, hosted about 100 young people Monday night at Ladder 15 in Center City. The idea: Holding a series of lightning talks about the state of Philly education. (It was part of the annual State of Young Philly lineup of events put on by Young Involved Philly.)

Here are five things I learned while hanging out in the lightning talks:

1. Pennsylvania pays for its schools differently than 47 out of the 50 states.

Most people know that Pennsylvania frequently butts heads with districts in the state over funding — but the system the state uses to divvy up the pie of funds is quite archaic as compared to the rest of the country. According to Philly CORE Leaders, Pennsylvania is one of just three states in the nation that doesn’t incorporate a Fair Funding Formula, which is usually seen as a funding formula that takes student need and income levels under consideration. The other two states are North Carolina and Delaware, the latter of which is so small that it doesn’t necessarily need to incorporate a funding formula like a larger state would, and isn’t seen as inequitable in the way it distributes funds.

But this could all change. Governor-elect Tom Wolf promised during his campaign to incorporate a Fair Funding Formula that provides 50 percent of schools’ funding in an attempt to alleviate property tax-payers of picking up the burden.

 2. Instead of Fair Funding, Pennsylvania uses a Market Value/ Personal Income Aid Ratio

Because the state employs this strategy of distributing funds to school districts, certain factors aren’t weighted to determine how much funding each school gets. For instance, in a Fair Funding Formula, some states will incorporate a 1.2 percent weight for a student in poverty. This would mean that the district gets an additional 20 percent of funding for each low-income student. Because Pennsylvania doesn’t use that, student need isn’t being factored into its funding formula.

 3. The SRC has ~special powers~

The School Reform Commission, which was put into place in 2001 to replace the Philadelphia Board of Education when the district was in crisis mode, has seen its fair share of criticism. According to Sophie Bryan, a special assistant with the Office of the Superintendent, the SRC has “special powers” that it’s only employed recently. If you recall, they’ve caused some controversy.

The first of these powers she noted was that the SRC can suspend parts of the school code if and when it wants to. This power was utilized by the commission in the past when it suspended parts of the charter school law to cut down on the over-enrollment of students. In addition, the SRC has the ability to decide how, and in what order, it brings back people from recall.

 4. But they still can’t raise taxes. That could make things weird if the SRC tanks.

While the relatively new commission has the power to strike down the school code and eliminate thousands of city jobs, it does not have the ability to raise property taxes — unlike every other school district in the state that employs elected officials and allows them to set the tax rate. That makes the SRC’s future uncertain, because if the city were to someday switch to an elected, more traditional school board, it would have to be decided whether or not that body would have the power to change taxes.

Both Bryan and Patrick Christmas, a member of Philly CORE Leaders who also works with Committee of 70, said during their lightning talk that they worry about an elected school board in Philly, as more high-profile elections could grab the attention of constituents. Christmas quoted a recent WHYY Newsworks column by Dave Davies that asked: “Do we want to pick school board members the way we always picked Traffic Court judges?”

5. The SRC could kinda just get rid of itself if it wanted to. 

If the members of the SRC wanted to just quit, they could just stop existing and the schools would be governed as they were in Philadelphia was prior to 2001, meaning a Board of Education serving under the mayor. It’s written into the SRC’s charge that the commission can vote to get rid of itself by getting a majority vote saying the district is no longer in distress. From there, the state Secretary of Education would have to sign off on it.

More likely? Lawmakers could swoop in and vote them out.

Correction: An earlier version of this story mischaracterized the SRC’s special powers. The group has the ability to decide the order in which personnel are brought back from recall.

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