Inside Take: How (Relatively) Rich Philly Public Schools Benefit at the Expense of Poor Ones

There's more to the school equity problem than the state funding shortage.

(Editor’s note: This is an opinion column from a Citified insider.)

There’s been a lot of talk about school equity in Philadelphia recently, but the conversation is missing half of the story.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was in Philadelphia this month calling for more equitable funding of Pennsylvania’s schools. According to Duncan, our state is dead last in terms of the inequality between wealthy and poor districts, and that’s hurting all Philadelphia schoolchildren.

When Superintendent William Hite was recently asked what a bumper sticker for his new plan for Philadelphia schools would read, he eloquently answered, “It’s all about equity.”

Hite’s recently released Action Plan 3.0 is a lengthy 59 page document, but there are a few encouraging themes throughout: stability, autonomy, and of course, school equity. After its release, headlines declared that Hite’s plan echoes Governor Wolf’s call for greater school equity, bolstering the current narrative that assumes equity for all Philadelphia students is achieved simply through changes in state funding, which Wolf proposed in his new budget.

But if you read Hite’s plan, he’s also talking about the need to make budget and management changes that would improve school equity within the District, not just between Philadelphia and the rest of the state.

And just how inequitable is the current Philadelphia school system? In the same way that wealthy districts like Lower Merion have far more resources than Philadelphia, schools with lower poverty rates in Philadelphia are able to outspend their peers in high poverty neighborhoods.

For example, due to District budgeting practices, schools in lower income communities are subsidizing budgets of schools in wealthier parts of the city. How is that possible? My colleague and finance guru, Kerry Woodward, explains it this way:

Every school must budget the same exact amount for every single teacher—$112,700 for an elementary school—regardless of how much that teacher actually makes. The number of teachers allocated to each school is based on enrollment. Then the school must “purchase” their teaching staff at a fixed rate. This, by far, represents the largest portion of their school budgets.

An analysis of the most recently available budget and salary information for District schools and staff shows that the District’s more experienced teachers, who are automatically paid a higher salary due to seniority-based pay scales established in the union contract, tend to work in schools with a lower proportion of low-income students, such as magnet schools and neighborhood schools in wealthier communities. At the same time, schools with a higher percent of lower-income students have a lower average teacher salary because they employ on average teachers with fewer years of experience.

In effect, school with more senior staff—most commonly magnet schools and neighborhood schools serving less disadvantaged students—receive an effective discount when purchasing their teacher resources whereas schools with less experienced staff—most commonly found in lower-income neighborhoods—often pay a sizable premium for their teaching staff. If schools could instead budget to pay teachers what they earn, and they had the flexibility to spend the rest, some schools would have enough funding for several extra staff members or other school resources.

Here’s an example of what Woodward is talking about. Pierce Elementary in North Philadelphia, which serves 100 percent economically disadvantaged students, is effectively penalized by $236,000 because its average per teacher cost is just $102,000 (for salary and benefits). Greenfield Elementary in Center City, meanwhile, where only about 30 percent of the students are economically disadvantaged, gets an effective bonus of $323,000 a year because its average total compensation for its more senior teachers is $123,000.

Imagine what Pierce could do with an extra quarter million dollars. Of course, this inequity doesn’t even account for the extra resources and advantages schools in wealthier neighborhoods receive through the support of their communities.

We shouldn’t fault schools like Greenfield that benefit from outside support or from this broken budgeting system, but we have to create a system that uses public funding in a way that balances out the scales for schools and students in poorer neighborhoods. Should zip code determine which students have access to a nicer building, a school library, or the best teachers? I would like to see a system that incentivizes our city’s best educators to teach in school with our most disadvantaged students.

Pennsylvania needs a fair funding formula, and we need to both increase the size of the state’s education funding pie and change how the pie is distributed, so that both Pierce and Greenfield have more resources. But we also need to look critically at how we distribute and invest Philadelphia’s share of the pie. We have to prioritize communities and students who have been chronically underserved by our school system for far too long.

If the city and the state decide to invest more funding in Philadelphia schools in the coming months—which I hope they do—elected officials should also hold the District accountable for ensuring those resources are allocated in a way that will give our city’s most disadvantaged students the best possible education and opportunities.

Kristen Forbriger is public affairs director at the Philadelphia School Partnership and executive committee member of PhillyCORE Leaders. Follow her on Twitter @kforbriger.