Philly Schools: Worse than Detroit?

Pew: Funding for city schools lags many other big cities.

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You know the School District of Philadelphia is strapped–in a big way–for cash. You’ve heard the stories about the lack of counselors and nurses; the $160 budget for a 400-kid elementary school in Germantown. Then there’s the cigarette tax, the sales tax, the property tax increases. Part of the reason for the mess is easy to identify: Pennsylvania is one of only three states that do not use a comprehensive school-finance formula to distribute state education funding to individual districts.

But a new report (see below) from the Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative puts the district’s financial struggles into an alarming national context, and shows that city schools are underfunded not just compared to wealthy suburban districts, but to peer cities as well. Indeed, the School District of Philadelphia has less to spend on classroom instruction per kid than even other high poverty cities, like Cleveland, Baltimore and Detroit. (Full disclosure: I’m working with Pew’s Philadelphia Research Initiative on an unrelated project.)

That’s grim news. It’s certainly true that generous funding is no guarantee of high quality schools. But urban districts tend to have students with a lot of needs, and those needs can be expensive to meet (counselors, nursing, additional support staff and so on). It was depressing enough when city kids were funded at rates below their suburban counterparts. Now we see they’re not even getting as many resources as kids in rust belt wrecks like Detroit and Cleveland.

At the risk of taking a wonky detour, it’s worth pointing out that Pew’s figures here are based on “operational” dollars, which is to say they exclude cash that districts spend on costs such as long-term debt and capital projects. That distinction matters, because the School District of Philadelphia carries a debt-load roughly 10 times the national average, according to a City Paper report. The district spends $264 million a year paying down that debt; that’s money that has little if any impact on what happens in classrooms.

Some might say: A ha! That’s proof of district mismanagement, not an argument for more cash. And that’s fair, to a point. But the managers and school boards who took on that debt are long gone. And now, short of defaulting, Superintendent Bill Hite and the School Reform Commission have little option but to make those payments, which in turn leaves even less funding for classroom instruction.

There’s a lot more to chew over in the Pew report, which dwells at length on the lack of a state funding formula for schools. Such as:

  • “Pennsylvania is one of only three states that do not use a comprehensive school-finance formula to distribute state education funding to individual districts.”
  • “A new formula would almost certainly provide Philadelphia with a larger share of state education money than it receives under the current system, which does not account for differences among districts such as the percentage of low-income students.”
  • “Philadelphia relied somewhat more heavily on state revenue and less on local sources than did most of the 10 other districts in 2013-14. In that year, Philadelphia received 45.9 percent of its operational revenue from the state, which was slightly above the 10-district average, and 42.3 percent of its revenue from local sources, which was slightly below the average. For the 2014-15 school year, Philadelphia Mayor Michael A. Nutter has said that the local share will rise to about 47 percent” (thanks to recent tax hikes and reallocations).

The full Pew report is embedded below.