Recently, about 70 principals from the School District of Philadelphia went to City Hall to ask City Council to approve additional funding for schools and to talk about how the budget crisis continues to profoundly affect the learning environment.
We went there to stand together to make a statement, at the end of a full day of managing buildings full of children without enough staff or materials. Earlier that day, many of us administered state standardized tests that will tell us what we already know - our children aren't getting the opportunities to learn what they should.
Many of us have never been to City Hall before for something like this. We are currently putting together our budgets for next year, and again we are faced with the prospect of another year of inadequate state and local funding. So we went to City Hall to ask for help.
We were able to meet with six members of City Council that day. Others had us meet with staff, several more declined, and we are still waiting for a few to call us back. Some seemed sympathetic; some said "something" might happen, but they couldn't say what. A few said other matters were just as pressing. Hardly any made a commitment to do anything specific.
These are our political leaders - the people we elect to solve the city's problems - telling us they couldn't, or wouldn't, say what they would do.
The district needs $320 million, plus the $120 million that was committed last year as part of the "rescue package," which still has not been fully delivered.
Last year, the General Assembly passed enabling legislation to extend the 1 percent sales-tax increase that is set to expire and provide the first $120 million to support public education. This revenue would be recurring funding for the schools, helping this year and in years to come. In addition to the $120 million, there will need to be $75 million to $80 million from other local sources, plus more state funding.
The state should restore the funding that it cut: the $80 million in accountability and school improvement grants, and educational assistance funding, which helped pay for kindergarten and tutoring, among other things, and $109 million in charter reimbursement funding. That allocation helped cover the additional costs of charter schools, which occur because the legislature has not adopted a permanent funding formula to provide adequate support for all children in our state education system.
Those items, which were direct state cuts, would provide $189 million. This doesn't include the money that the state started to allocate through a now-discarded funding formula. If it were in place today, experts estimate we would have an additional $317 million to $500 million.
The city should pass the sales tax for schools to provide recurring, sustainable funding. It could shift some of the millage rate from property taxes back so that schools again receive 50 percent of property taxes. The city could stop giving away the school share of the taxes in the abatement program, and we could direct money from the sales of taxi medallions to schools. None of these things involves a tax increase, even though many people would be willing to pay more taxes if schools would benefit.
If state and local officials take reasonable steps on funding, we could be running well-maintained schools, with enough staff and the core services and academic programs that our children deserve.
But here is the thing:
Every minute we spend planning how to cope with insufficient funding is time we aren't spending with teachers, planning instruction, or working directly with kids - the things that move us forward.
If you give us the resources, we will get better outcomes. Dollars alone won't fix everything, and there are no shortcuts in educating children or dealing with the consequences of pervasive poverty.
But dollars do buy many of the things that each make up part of the solution: smaller class sizes; individual supports and services; teacher training and evaluation of instructional practices; materials and technology; and art, music, recess, counselors, and nurses. These things, which are good enough for the kids in neighboring suburbs, should be good enough for our kids here.
Education is a right, not a privilege. The education of Philadelphia's children should not be dependent on parents' resources, political machinations, the largesse of philanthropists, or the creative abilities of school staff to do more with less. Nor should we ask people to tolerate less and less.
We call on our city and state officials to take responsibility for ensuring this right by fully funding our schools.