A Hollow Victory for Philly Schools

City and District win cigarette tax fight, but secure wretched status quo.

Dave Davies nailed it, as he so often does, when he described last week’s surprise deal enabling Philadelphia to tax cigarettes and send the proceeds to the schools as simultaneously “awful” and a “stunning, come-from-behind legislative win.”

The $2-a-pack cigarette tax looked dead right up until Wednesday night, when a surprise amendment offered by State Rep. John Taylorthe lone Republican in Philadelphia’s 34-strong delegation to Harrisburg-won enough support for the initiative to enable it to pass the tax-averse House. 119-90

Considering the alternative, there’s little doubt that this was a win for the city (and a reminder that a 100-percent Democratic delegation is clearly not in the city’s best interest). Parents, students and educators owe Taylor, the rest of the delegation, Mayor Nutter and Council President Clarke (all of whom lobbied hard for this) their gratitude.

But let’s look at what was won.

The city won the right to tax itself even more, picking up slack that has historically been the state’s responsibility.

The district won just barely enough funding to enable schools to open in the fall, at the same utterly unacceptably low staffing levels of last year.

That’s the big victory. Harrisburg, principally the Republican majority in the House, has moved the goal posts s0 dramatically that this feels like a win for the city. I see a ton of problems with this, but three leap to mind as particularly troublesome.

  1. By authorizing the cigarette tax, the state has probably made it impossible — or at least much more politically difficult —for the SRC and Superintendent Bill Hite to refuse to open schools this fall. While that may seem like an unqualified good thing, the threat of a shutdown is arguably the only leverage the district has to secure more funding. A shutdown would attract national attention, shame those in the state legislature capable of shame, and put tremendous pressure on Gov. Corbett to shake loose more state funding for the schools. Now that option is probably off the table, because the schools have the bare minimum needed to replicate last year’s sorry educational offerings.
  2. Last year stretched city schools to the breaking point. We’re headed for a re-run, and the risks are compounding. Talented educators who told themselves last year to wait it out may well flee the district rather than deal with the deprivation again. Even worse, by repeating last year’s experience, we risk creating a new, utterly unacceptable status quo, where it’s the new normal to have schools without counselors, or aides or librarians. In that environment, simply restoring state funding to pre-Corbett, pre-recession 2008-2009 levels starts to look like extra funding, instead of simply making good on what’s been taken away. That is an even harder political sell.
  3. The last few budget cycles have probably permanently reallocated the split between the state and city when it comes to funding of Philadelphia schools. The city is a huge loser in this realignment, with major consequences for the city’s ability to lower tax rates or invest in municipal services. This wouldn’t be so bad if the additional city spending on schools was being used to actually enhance education; that would be a great investment in the Philadelphia’s future. But it’s not. Instead, the cash is being used to just to staunch the worst of the bleeding created by the feds and Harrisburg, who have bailed on the school district in a big way. See the chart above, which shows pretty clearly that the city is picking up all the slack.

Some victory.

Part of the problem seems to be that too many representatives and senators plainly do not understand why the district is broke. According to John Baer, Philly Rep. Angel Cruz was calling for an audit of the school district next week. “Something is not working with the school district’s finances, and it’s imperative we find out what it is and fix it before we pour more money into the district,” Cruz said.

Where to begin with this amazingly-commonplace-sentiment? It’s as though state lawmakers can’t understand why Philly schools are broke when they get more money than other, much-smaller districts with far-less-challenged kids. “Upper Merion is doing ok,” you’ll hear. “What’s wrong with Philly?” I seriously think these guys need to revisit the concept of the denominator.

It’s actually not much of a mystery why the district is broke. Funding has been reduced. District pension costs-which are controlled by the state-are skyrocketing. The debt load from past mismanagement is crippling. And rapid charter expansion has made it hard for the district to shed operational costs as quickly as it loses students, which is another problem the state is well-positioned to help solve. Are some district dollars being squandered? No doubt. That’s true of all big bureaucracies. But the cuts have been dramatic, and I think the evidence largely suggests that most of the district’s excesses are in the past.

Some city Democrats have fooled themselves into thinking all of this will get much, much better if Corbett is defeated in the fall. That’s delusional, I’m afraid. The Republican-led House of Representatives won’t be changing its stripes, no matter who is governor. The right-wing core of the House melds Cruz-style willful ignorance with fervent opposition to tax increases and a not-so-subtle disdain for all-things-Philly. This group isn’t going to roll over for a Governor Wolf.

Still, last week’s vote on the cigarette tax showed that that unreasonable GOP core can be beaten, particularly with help from suburban Republicans. Senate leader Dominic Pileggi has made it clear that city schools can get a fair shake in his chamber. The problem is the House. Last week, House leadership bent, ever so slightly. The city, the district and their allies have another year to figure out how to do make them do it again.

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