Recently, we have been spending a lot of time looking back at the devastating decisions the School District of Philadelphia had to make seven years ago when the state drastically cut funding for education. We are looking back because the economic collapse we are all witnessing due to the COVID-19 pandemic has created a budget shortfall that could be equally as devastating for our School District — one that threatens to eradicate the fiscal and academic progress we’ve made together over the last seven years.
Since 2017, we’ve regained local control of our School District and our bond rating has been upgraded to investment grade for the first time since 1977. With new investments from the city and the state, we invested in our students and schools by refilling over 2,500 teaching and support staff positions, adding academic programs, strengthening behavioral supports for our most at-risk students, and reestablishing extracurricular activities. We also invested in our buildings by modernizing classrooms, upgrading technology for students and staff, making much-needed repairs, and remediating environmental hazards.
There is still much work to do. And, we desperately do not want to have to scale back. We want to continue to provide the supports and services our students need and deserve as they prepare for college and career success. Unfortunately, the looming economic shortfall will make that very difficult.
Since closing in mid-March, we have seen local revenue drop by $60 million while costs for staff, supplies, and remote learning increase. The district is currently projecting a $38 million shortfall for the next school year, which will grow to $1 billion in just five years.
We’re not alone among school districts in the financial challenges we’re facing. The Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials (PASBO) is projecting local revenue for school districts statewide to drop by $850 million to $1 billion for the 2020-21 school year. At the same time, PASBO anticipates mandated costs to increase by more than $500 million. And while education is not the only sector dealing with the economic consequences of this pandemic, we are all too familiar with the impact of budget cuts and the devastating effect they have on our children’s future.
In 2011, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania cut education funding by almost 10%. This $1 billion state cut to education funding translated to 20,000 fewer teachers in classrooms statewide, increased class sizes in 70% of school districts, the elimination or reduction of academic programs in 74% of school districts, and property-tax increases across the state. All of this had a profound impact on the educational experience of a generation of students.
The School District of Philadelphia shouldered more than a quarter of the total state cut. Closing the $300 million deficit forced us to eliminate thousands of positions, close schools, and abandon building maintenance projects. But we recovered and are now making steady progress.
Instead of cutting funding for K-12 public education, we are calling on Gov. Wolf and members of the General Assembly to maintain education funding at the current-year level. We cannot solve another state budget crisis at the expense of our children’s future, which is the very future of our commonwealth. We have one opportunity to educate our students, and we will all suffer the consequences if we turn our backs on their education.
We can get through this budget crisis, but we need your help to protect education funding. We need you and the Philadelphia community to make your voices heard. We need you to reach out to Governor Wolf and your state senator and state representative and tell them not to cut education funding. Join us this Thursday and every Thursday afterward as we call on Harrisburg to #fundourschools. For more information about Advocacy Thursday’s and how you can get involved, please visit www.philasd.org/fundourschools.
William R. Hite, Jr. is superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia. Joyce Wilkerson is president of the School District of Philadelphia Board of Education