As the School District of Philadelphia waits impatiently for the infusion of cash the courts have directed, a harmful climate of scarcity persists. You only have to watch one episode of Abbott Elementary — in many ways, a shockingly accurate portrayal of Philly schools — to understand that Philadelphia teachers and students routinely have to do more with less. But the day-to-day penny-pinching that makes ambitious plans to enrich instruction for deserving students laughable on TV is actually not funny in real life.
When most of us think about funding for a large public system like the School District, we tend to focus on the big numbers, rather than how those dollars are actually distributed and come to influence the day-to-day life of a school. Yet, just as all politics is local, so with schools. What matters most to students and teachers often comes down to whether or not a school can afford a nurse or a music teacher, whether broken pipes are quickly repaired, teachers have enough paper, restrooms have enough soap. When it comes to school supplies — in and beyond the classroom — Philly teachers tend to bring their own.
Truly, the problem begins at the very top with how the District chooses to allocate funds to each individual school. Look closely at how and where money is spent, and you’ll notice the all-too-common trade-offs officials are forced to make. In an Inquirer opinion piece, former school board member Angela McIver explains she could not approve the 2021-22 School District budget because it authorized spending three times more on school police as on athletics, which she describes as more critical for student well-being. How does something like this happen?
How the School District builds each school’s budget
For most citizens, even for those directly involved in allocating funds at the school level, the process of transferring money from a $4.5 billion budget to each school is a mystery. Looking closely at the details reveals a complex process which involves negotiation and compromise and generally fails to satisfy school leaders who have to juggle resources as they try to provide the best outcomes for students.
Every spring, the School District of Philadelphia allocates a certain number of positions (jobs) to each of its schools for the next school year. The District bases these allocations almost entirely on current (spring) student enrollment numbers. In high schools, funds are allocated based on the expectation of 33 students per class. This number applies to every class, no matter the subject, teaching strategy, or its students’ characteristics.
Some more allotment stats: High schools with more than 600 students receive an assistant principal. Schools with 650 students or more can have more than one counselor, while schools with enrollment ranging from 650 to 1299 students have two. An enrollment of up to 849 students garners one secretary; 850-1699 students get two. Per pupil funding for art and music — which are not mandatory — is offered at $20 per student.
Some schools receive additional discretionary funding, depending on their scores on the District’s Progress Report on Education and Equity (SPREE). Lower level schools receive increased funding to use to improve their progress. Level 1, the highest level, provides $200 per student; level 3 provides $250 per student. Like enrollment, a school’s ranking can change from year to year, making available discretionary funds hard to predict.
Here in Philadelphia, school resources are precious and well-guarded. You have to prove that you need money, not because a good education or students’ needs deserve funding, but because you have the right number of students.
Once these variables are determined, individual school principals then “purchase” positions. School District guidelines state, “Mandatory purchases include: a principal, a counselor, a secretary, summer reorganization, art and music allotment, high school graduation caps and gowns, PBIS (Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports) incentives allotment, a neighborhood high school assistant principal, and extra-curricular for elementary schools.”
Once principals have purchased all mandatory positions and received all test-score-based additional funding, they have some leeway in spending remaining dollars. These school leaders do the best job they can, scooping up leftover funds to pay for a specialist teacher or lab equipment or sports facilities.
To be fair, each school budget has some — hard to tell how much — wiggle room. Many principals end up bargaining with their regional superintendents, and may or may not succeed at getting additional resources that they feel their schools most need.
If all this sounds like how things work at a flea market, you’re not far off.
In the end, the message is loud and clear: Here in Philadelphia, school resources are precious and well-guarded. You have to prove that you need money, not because a good education or students’ needs deserve funding, but because you have the right number of students. Do students, their families and your staff want a music teacher? You will likely have to sacrifice another position, an extra counselor, an assistant principal, an IT instructor.
Then, there’s this: Staffing decisions are far from set once school starts. Come October, the District employs its widely criticized “leveling” process to take teachers from under-enrolled schools and move them to others based on the actual student headcount rather than last spring’s projections. Obviously, this is an unwelcome disruption to both students and educators who’ve just settled into their back-to-school routines.
What needs to change
The picture that emerges shows education held hostage to the need to make limited ends meet. But it isn’t just the lack of money that creates that picture. Tying the budgeting process so tightly to student enrollment is dangerously myopic.
Student enrollment is inevitably a large factor, but best practices in school budgeting, such as those encouraged by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, urge schools to adopt student-based budgeting driven not primarily by fiscal concerns but by academic strategies and goals. Decisions that matter most to Philadelphia’s students’ daily lives, decisions about class size and academic support, seem too frequently forced on schools by financial exigency, not based on the school’s or district’s academic goals, which might buffer schools against the ups and downs of yearly enrollment numbers.
Instead of using enrollment as its budget basis, the District should follow the Annenberg Institute’s recommendations and allocate funds based on students’ academic needs, program viability and school quality — using a thorough analysis of education data, goals, benchmarks, and lived experience. The District should not penalize schools that are successful and meet approved goals just because their enrollment has dropped, especially when they have no authority to admit students on their own.
Building a smarter school budget
Smarter budgeting would include consultation with in-school educators. It would take into account how cutbacks, especially teacher layoffs, impact students’ learning opportunities, undermine program consistency, interfere with long-range planning, and threaten school stability. Moreover, it would recognize what a scarcity mentality does to our students and those who educate them.
All but a handful of Philadelphia’s 39 highly regarded criteria-based schools, which had to surrender control over their admissions to an ill-conceived lottery, lost enrollment this spring and suffered budgets cut as a result. Superintendent Watlington, facing strong pushback, promised that no more than three schools — Hill Freedman World Academy, The Arts Academy at Benjamin Rush and Girls High — would lose more than two teachers.
We know Science Leadership Academy at Beeber lost two positions. The fate of others has gone undocumented. These criteria-based schools should be in the vanguard of innovation and education. Instead, they’re heading backwards. If enrollment rebounds next year, it will be too late for teachers who lost their jobs — and for students in larger classes — with fewer resources.
Clearly, adequate funding would make a huge difference to school quality, providing many more positive choices and eliminating the need, for example, to sacrifice athletics for school security. But scarcity is not just the absence of money. It’s a negative state of mind about what’s possible; it keeps expectations low.
Even if the District gets substantial more funding sometime soon, it won’t make a difference if current policies and attitudes persist. There are better ways to manage scarce resources. Change how school budgets are formulated. Protect schools from the vicissitudes of enrollment. Place academic goals and student well-being in the forefront. Now that would go a long way to making our schools feel richer — even without more money to spend.
Peshe C Kuriloff, Ph.D. was a professor of practice at Temple University, and is now retired. She has five grandchildren currently attending Philadelphia public schools.
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