Stop School Funding Ignorance Now! A Philadelphia Story

On a daily basis, I continue to be befuddled by the ignorant bluster, intellectual laziness and mathematical and financial ineptitude of those who most loudly opine on how to fix America’s supposed dreadful public education system.  Common examples that irk me include taking numbers out context to make them seem shocking, like this Newark example (some additional context), or the repeated misrepresentation of per pupil spending in New York State.

And then there are those times, when a loudmouthed pundit simply chooses to ignore reality altogether – and frame the problem as it exists only in their own cloistered world or own head. That brings me to this tweet:

Perhaps I’m misinterpreting, but it appears that Andy Smarick in this tweet is placing blame for the financial distress of Philadephia schools squarely if not entirely on the city school district itself. In fact, he suggests that someone has been “propping up” the district. And that because the district – like all “urban” districts do – fails – it must be replaced by an assortment of private providers. See this post for more insights into Smarick’s “solution” to this “problem” that Philly Schools has clearly created on its own.

To callously assert that the problems faced by Philly schools are primarily if not entirely a  function of local mismanagement – and that someone somewhere has actually been trying to “prop” the district up – displays a baffling degree of willful ignorance.  Save for another day a discussion of the fact that over the past 10 years, the city has in fact adopted many of the strategies that Smarick himself endorses (privatized management, charter expansion, etc.).

One might argue that to a significant extent, through the state’s dysfunctional and inequitable approach to providing financial support for local public districts, Pennsylvania has for some time (but for a brief period of temporary reforms) actually been trying to put an end to Philly schools. And it appears that they may be achieving their goals. To summarize:

  1. Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country, and Philly bears the brunt of that system.
  2. Pennsylvania’s school finance system is actually designed in ways that divert needed funding away from higher need districts like Philadelphia.
  3. And Pennsylvania’s school finance system has created numerous perverse incentives regarding charter school funding, also to Philly’s disadvantage. (see here also)

I would be remiss if I didn’t actually include data or a graph in this post, beyond the citations to sources above that include plenty.  So here it is – the distribution of state and local revenues for districts in the Philly metro area from 2005 to 2011, with respect to child poverty.

Slide1A district with average state and local revenue for the metro area would fall on the 1.0 line. The sizes of the shapes represent the size of the districts in terms of enrollment. Circles are for 2005, triangles for 2007 and so on (see key). The vertical position of larger shapes is measured from their center. Notably, Philly hangs at marginally above 80% of metro average funding.  Yes… following the Rendell formula reforms Philly’s position started to improve slightly but has since fallen back, and never really made sufficient progress. Way up in that upper left hand corner, is Lower Merion School District, perhaps the most affluent suburb of Philly. They’re doin’ just fine!

What we also notice here is that Philly’s indicator is, year after year, moving to the right in our picture. Some of this is a poverty measurement issue, but some of it is real (to be parsed more carefully at a later point). Philly school aged children are getting poorer. They were never compensated with sufficient additional resources to begin with and those resources are now in decline.

I’ve explained previously that Cost pressures in education are primarily local/regional. Education is a labor intensive industry. Salaries must be competitive on the local/regional labor market to recruit and retain quality teachers. And for children to have access to higher education, they must be able to compete with peers in their region.

And within any region, children with greater needs and schools serving higher concentrations of children with greater needs require more resources – more resources to recruit and retain even comparable numbers of comparable teachers – and more resources to provide smaller class sizes and more individual attention.

Put simply – Philly needs far more than its surrounding districts but has, year after year, had far less.

More information on how and why money matters can be found here:

As far back as I’ve been running the numbers with both national and state data sources, Philly has been among the most screwed urban public districts in the nation. Philly has never been “propped up.”

End the district? Because it’s clearly the right thing to do for these kids? Because we’ve propped them up year after year… and they just keep blowing it – acting inefficiently – in the interest of adults not kids – as all “urban” districts do? Are you freakin’ kidding me? Wake the hell up. Look at some damned data and evaluate the problem a little more carefully before you make such absurd declarations.

For those who wish to levy similar accusations against Chicago….

Slide2Those BIG shapes there… which like Philly, fall below the “average” line and have much higher child poverty than other districts in their metro? yeah… that’s Chicago. As I’ve noted on numerous previous posts in this blog (just search for “Chicago” or Illinois) Chicago and Philly are consistently among the most screwed major urban districts – operating in states with the least equitable state school finance systems. The links above to reports slamming PA (first two bullets) provide similar tales of inequity in Illinois.


Clearly, Andy Smarick cares little that he lacks even the most basic understanding of the financial plight of Philadelphia public schools.  The tweets keep coming… and remain as wrong as ever… simply … factually… wrong! There is just no excuse for this kind of BS.

As for the presumptive solution here… that the “failed urban” district should/can be replaced with portfolio of charter operators that will necessarily be more effective, consider again that Philly has been dabbling for over a decade with resource free attempts at porfolio-izing the district. Consider also that even where charters – at small market share ( do appear relatively effective – there remain substantive differences in their student populations, and in many cases substantive differences in their access to resources.

There are no miracles, regardless of the type of provider. Here’s one particularly relevant post on the non-reformy lessons of KIPP: & here’s a more cynical post regarding NJ charters, and Uncommon schools in particular:

In other words, if the urban school district has proven, with unlimited resources, that it cannot succeed, and if charters have largely proven a break even endeavor in their urban contexts, then they too are equal failures. Only in Smarick’s wild imagination is the solution so simple and clear, yet so potentially dangerous if blindly accepted as public policy.

This level of fact-free schlock and feeble minded policy advocacy must stop. Civil discourse? Sorry. I just can’t. This stuff is just too dumb for words! It’s irresponsible, ill-informed, reckless and more.


18 thoughts on “Stop School Funding Ignorance Now! A Philadelphia Story

  1. Andy has a solution — charterize all urban school districts — that he lays out in his book: “The Urban School System of the Future.” He is focused on shaping all data to be consistent with his thesis that urban school systems are fundamentally broken and privatization is the answer.

    And if the data doesn’t fit that thesis? True corporate ed deformers like Smarick don’t let reality stand in the way of ideology and marketing.

    1. also ignores entirely that whether charter school, district school or private school, access to adequate resources matters. It’s a ridiculous bait and switch to point to high flying NYC charters as examples of how/why chartering works and then suggest that one can simply charterize anywhere, anytime, with half the money and it will work similarly. Smarick seems to be among the worst to me, since he is apparently so proudly oblivious to so much about education, economic and fiscal policy and public policy more generally.

      I’m willing to have a reasonable conversation regarding the virtues of alternative governance models. But that conversation must occur in the context of “reality,” and some basic understanding of the complexities of that “reality.” Smarick’s book is mindless goo.

    1. Well… yeah… but sad as it is… in Texas there has been some reasonable back and forth between the court and legislature. Imagine how bad it might be in Texas had the courts never put any pressure on the legislature to improve equity? It would be like extending the last few years… leading up to the current – now extended legal battle (restart in January 2014?). I like to think the pressure in Texas made things less bad than they would otherwise be. But Texas still does do quite poorly on our funding fairness index.

      Illinois and Pennsylvania are examples of how bad it gets when there is absolutely no external pressure on the legislature, and very little will/interest in the legislature to make improvements (that said, that fleeting moment in PA under Rendell seemed impressive at the time, before it was all completely undone!)

  2. Joe–having worked on several Texas school finance cases (as has Bruce) and now living in PA, I have to say that Texas has a far more rational, equitable, and adequate system than PA. And we know that TX is very inequitable at the moment and quite inadequate as well. But the PA system is truly unbelievable. In PA, it matters greatly what zip code you live in. I’m in the State College School District which is well-funded because property taxes and income taxes are high here. When you look at houses around the school district borders, the same house is probably 20-30% greater in the State College district than the other districts because those with money are willing to pay a huge premium to be in the good district. Because the houses are more expensive, revenues are greater which makes it easier for the district to spend enough to do well–thus further exacerbating the vicious cycle. Moreover, the way charters are funded is draining huge amounts of money out of public districts. On top of that was some crazy pension decisions allowed/supported by the state that is increasing costs. Ultimately, in the next 3 years, about 95% of districts in PA will be in the red due to state budget cuts, charter rip offs, and pensions balloon payments because no one paid in for a few years. Its hte biggest disaster in school finance ever perhaps.

  3. Don’t forget that in December, 2001 the Philadelphia public schools were taken over by the state of Pennsylvania and the District been run ever since by the state’s School Reform Commission. Since that time it has had a succession of high paid Superintendents who were brought in from outside the District, including Paul Vallas, Arlene Ackerman and the current Superintendent William Hite. Ackerman had (she was on its board while Superintendent in Philadelphia) and Hite has(Broad Superintendent Academy Class of 2005) close ties with the Broad Foundation.

    Since the takeover in 2001, the Philadelphia School District has been like a medieval town which is surrounded by an outside army and starved into submission until it is weakened for the final assault, which is now happening in Philadelphia.

    For some detail on this history see:

    The 2013-14 “Doomsday Budget” of the School District of Philadelphia:
    How did it come to this?

    1. Exactly – Philly is a prime example of trying numerous reformy fads for over a decade without ever committing sufficient resources – which is why Smarick’s statement is so ridiculous.

  4. A number of people in Philadelphia think the way to save the public schools here is to let them crumble to the ground first. This combined with the racially tinged comments about the School District in general…it’s troubling all around.

  5. Thank you Dr. Baker. I have had thought similar to yours, and thanks to this blog and that of Dr. Ravitch have come to the conclusion that I am not insane and I am seeing what is happening. Thank you for all you do from a tired beleaguered teacher.

  6. Sounds like Andy is giving a typical “critic” response to redirect the topic away from the real issue. A lack of funding & resources for schools is still going to be a lack of funding regardless of whether the school is charter or public. Kids need an education, and they’re the one’s that get hurt. They’re not the only ones though – I wrote a blog post about this yesterday you might be interested in – about how if we’re not paying for their education then we’ll end up paying for increased welfare, crime, health, etc. It’s just stupid on all fronts to cut school funding.

  7. I live in Arlington VA. I taught in the district for one year, where my largest class (7th graders) was 24. We have high property values, so that even though we have a relatively low tax rate, we are able to spend a great deal on our schools, which since they are so good increases the value of our homes.

    I taught for 16 years in Prince George’s County MD. It is not a poor community – it is the wealthiest majority-black political jurisdiction in the US, with an average family income someplace int eh >50K range. But it for years allowed the building of townhouse communities on which the taxes were not close to covering the cost of education of the children who lived in them. It also has a serious tax limitation – in part because there are chunks of the community that do not have children in public schools (although in Arlington the % of homes with kids in public schools was only around 10%), in part because there was a strong perception of mismanagement and waste. In the elite high school in the county, I had as many as 38 students in a class, and usually average well over 30, my average being held down slightly by one class in a special program that usually had only 20-22 students.

    Both communities abut the District of Columbia.

    Both communities are in a fairly expensive metropolitan area.

    Arlington has a significant gay community, and a lot of singles (straight and gay) who live along the spines of two lines of Metro, who often do not have cars.

    Both political jurisdictions vote heavily Democratic.

    The difference in the effectiveness of the schools is largely explained by the different expenditures per student between the two districts. largely, not completely.

    Money by itself does not equal improvement.

    Lack of money almost always means difficulties – what do you cut? How large are the classes? What facilities will be wanting?

    As for people like Smarick? As bad as he is as an opinion writer, what is worse is how poorly most of those who mediate the public’s understanding, the education press, truly understand what they are writing about. Too many view their time on the education beat as temporary, do not bother to learn about the issues, and serve as megaphones for press releases from the likes of the corporatizers, the advocates of “reform” and the like.

    Things might improve some were every newspaper to regularly have columns by professional and experienced educators who can explain the reality of public education.

    Fat chance. In part because newspapers are largely dying.

    Still, even if they had web-based columns by educators, it could make a difference in understanding.

    1. You definitely hit on a bigger problem here- the fact that today’s media is dreadfully unskilled and uncritical so much so that they actually turn to people like Smarick as “experts” and so much so that in their insecurity regarding their utter lack of knowledge/expertise, when they put together “expert panels” at events like the Ed Writers Association meetings, or elsewhere, they include a mix of ill-informed think tank pundits and other reporters. It’s this amazing self-validation-of-complete-ignorance that seems to have gotten way out of control. There seem to be only a handful of reporters out there even willing to touch state school funding issues (more will touch local budget crisis issues… but refusing to capture state policy context).

  8. I have found that over more than 20 years almost no one knows the money or reads the budgets and knows what they say. Therefore, they can get away with murder. Programs take money. That is why you need to know the money as the author has presented with comparison to show that in the same community funding is different. This is true in California even though there is a State Supreme Court Decision (Serrano v. Priest) which states that equitable funding is mandatory. What a joke. Try to explain to me why Compton and Inglewood receive less than LAUSD when they have more need/student? Beverly Hills is easy to explain they fund themselves completely from local, not state, funds. They can fund as much as they can tax. Mass amounts of money can disappear inside budgets. An example is what became Schiff-Bustamente in California.

    One day I got tired of teachers complaining about spending $1000-1,500/year of their after tax income on books and supplies. I decided to look and compare the Superintendents Final Budget and the Audited Actuals for the same year on the line items textbooks and instructional materials and supplies. Well, I found that they budgeted and did not spend $250,000,000. I found that this happened for 10 years or $2.5 billion dollars not spent which was budgeted. It took a year for the L.A. Times to finally write the article called “In a Book Bind.” This caused such a furor that the Schiff-Bustamente legislation was passed which added $1.5 billion over 3 years. This was only one school district yet all received extra and I saw new books in libraries and such.

    I am now looking at the lies in the LAUSD Superintendents Budget for this year in which they state again that special ed in LAUSD is 4.6% when according to the Chanda Smith Federal Court Monitor it is 11.46%. They are this blatant. All you have to do is look.

  9. Chicago is getting a bit more screwed next year. The mayorally appointed CPS Board of Education just cut the district portion of per-student spending by around 20%. It’s hard to figure out the exact amount due to a lack of transparency and a new budgeting scheme for this year, but most schools are losing about $900 per student – my school of 900 students is losing about $860K for next year. It does seem like our mayor is setting public schools up to fail so he can turn them over to private organizations.

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