Education news in Pennsylvania, home to the nation’s biggest gap in funding for poor and wealthy school districts, has in recent years featured a steady stream of stories about the programs, materials and staff that schools are lacking.
Some observers and state lawmakers say that the problem isn’t that school districts are underfunded so much as they aren’t as efficient as they could be. For example, why are classrooms in Philadelphia so starved for basic resources, they ask, when Philadelphia spends more than $13,000 per student — in the middle of the state’s education spending spectrum?
“Philadelphia needs to look at some of its local processes to decide why ... they’re having such a tough time delivering some of the services students need,” said Sen. Majority Leader Jake Corman (R-Centre County).
But leaders of some charter schools, often lauded for spending money more efficiently than traditional schools, also say the cuts have gone too deep.
Scott Gordon, chief executive of Mastery Charter Schools, a network known for turning around struggling Philadelphia schools, said the city has fallen into a “red zone,” where every cut to public schools has a direct effect on children.
“We are significantly squeezed now, as is the Philadelphia school district,” Gordon said. “The money does matter. Of course how you spend it matters equally, but not having the resources is a real barrier.”
Philadelphia charter school funding is pegged to the district’s spending; this year, they are getting about $8,000 per student, down from $8,700 in 2011. They receive $23,000 per special-education student, up slightly over the same period.
Gordon says his network receives somewhere around $10,000 to $10,500 per student, on average. Many charter schools raise private funds to supplement the tax dollars they receive, but Mastery tries to operate its schools without such donations.
Mastery has staved off big cuts in the classroom by digging into its savings, Gordon said. But the network has raised class sizes from an average of 24 per classroom to 28.
Officials at Mastery’s Shoemaker campus, which serves as a neighborhood middle-high school in one of Philadelphia’s poorer areas, said they have seen their largest classes grow from about 22 students to more than 30.
“Students come to us behind, so of course the more individual attention we can give them, the better,” said Kat Schoemaker, an assistant principal. Nearly two-thirds of students at Mastery are proficient in math and reading, about 20 percentage points higher than the Philadelphia district average.
On a recent afternoon, a small group of Mastery Shoemaker students praised the school, saying that their teachers believed in them and pushed them to excel. Zahira Weaver, a 17-year-old junior who has a child, said that she leaned on Shoemaker’s counselor, Sarah Gentry, to help her balance the demands of being a student and a mother.
But Gentry is the only person in that role, dedicated to providing that kind of support to the school’s 800 students.
“My counselor helps me a lot,” Weaver said. “I think it would be nice for her to have some help. She takes things off my plate. A lot of students should have that feeling.”
An ambitious funding proposal from new Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf (D) would increase state funding for education by $1 billion, including $400 million in direct aid to school districts. Wolf also wants to implement a funding formula that would direct more aid to districts with higher numbers of needy children.
Wolf’s proposals also contain elements that have drawn fierce opposition in the charter school community, including a provision to change the way cyber charters are paid and another to do away with charters’ ability to stockpile tax dollars in rainy-day funds.
Gordon, Mastery’s CEO, called the latter “bad policy.”
“Mastery schools are successful this year because we saved a lot when we knew that a financial crisis was coming,” he said. “If we had the limitation that the governor is suggesting, I don’t think we’d be able to do that.”
Gordon added that he is otherwise largely enthusiastic about the governor’s plan, which he called an “attempt to change the game and ensure that schools have a permanent funding stream that is based on the kids they serve and their level of need.”
Derrick Brockington, a 17-year-old senior at Mastery’s Shoemaker campus, said his school was a haven for him after his brother was killed two years ago. He said that young people in his neighborhood deserve more investment in their schools, and he said such investment makes sense.
“The more they upgrade our schools, the less they have to worry about kids being in the street,” Brockington said. “If they start coming in here, they’ll see it’s actually kids who want to learn.”