Research group disputes Commonwealth Foundation's findings on Phila. schools' finances

Posted: August 14, 2014

A study that said more money has not helped city schools is flawed and presents a skewed picture of the Philadelphia School District's reality, a local nonprofit says.

The conservative Commonwealth Foundation said in an analysis released earlier this month that while the system's budget had grown over the past decade, its students were still struggling, and that "serious reform" was needed to fix the city's schools.

But Research for Action, a Philadelphia-based organization whose mission is to strengthen public schools, found the Commonwealth Foundation brief "misleading, inaccurate, and devoid of context needed for an informed understanding of what is happening in the city's schools."

The crux of the Commonwealth Foundation's brief is that in Philadelphia, "revenue and spending have soared over the last 10 years." Namely, it points out, the district's budget grew by $1 billion in a decade.

But, Research for Action says, the Commonwealth Foundation left out the 2013-14 school year, which saw sharp spending cuts and two dozen school closures. The foundation also discounted considerable drops in state funding levels over the past five years, Research for Action said, and counted the sale of bonds as part of the district's revenue.

Officials "borrowed hundreds of millions to open the schools - money that covered one year and must be paid back with interest, further adding to the costs the authors decry repeatedly in their analysis," the Research for Action brief said.

The district is spending large sums on pensions, special education costs, debt payment and charter schools, all mandated and all increasing "far beyond what school administrators could offset with budget cuts," Research for Action said.

John Sludden, a Research for Action policy analyst, said the suggestion that funding has been flush in Philadelphia is particularly harmful in an era when many schools lack adequate classroom supplies, full-time counselors, and nurses.

"Funding doesn't feel like it's soaring," Sludden said Tuesday. "It's fine for people to weigh in - the more dialogue the better. But it should be as informed as possible. Context matters."

James Paul, the Commonwealth Foundation's senior policy analyst, said Tuesday that Research for Action and other critics simply "took a look at what we said and tried to frame it differently."

Paul said the foundation used the most recent financial information that was available through the state.

"We weren't trying to play with the endpoints," he said.

He said the foundation's stance was unchanged - spending has increased, and "there just aren't results in the classroom to show for it."

The discussion is particularly crucial at the moment, as Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. mulls whether schools will open on Sept. 8 as scheduled.

The district has an $81 million deficit and was counting on a $2-per-pack cigarette tax that still requires approval by state officials. Lawmakers were supposed to return last week to approve the measure, but opted to cancel the legislative session and will not return until Sept. 15.

Without the cigarette-tax money assured, officials say, layoffs, a shortened school year, and class sizes of more than 40 are possible.


kgraham@phillynews.com

215-854-5146 @newskag

www.inquirer.com/schoolfiles

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