To Philadelphia City Councilwoman Helen Gym, Pennsylvania’s education funding system is, in a word, “deplorable.” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten joked she’d been to the city so many times to protest inadequate school funding from Harrisburg that it felt like she lived here.
It would be fair to say the Keystone State’s education system got an “F” at a packed education reform panel held at Field House restaurant during the Democratic National Convention and hosted by The Atlantic.
Gym, a longtime schools advocate who won a seat on council last year, railed against the policies she said had created some of the most extreme funding inequalities between rich and poor school districts in the nation. Heavily reliant on local property taxes – which will increase in 80 percent of the commonwealth’s school districts this year – a recent City&State PA report found that cratering real estate values in much of rural PA were strangling those regions’ school districts while health care, special education and pension costs skyrocketed.
Meanwhile, she said, intervention by the state government had harmed Philadelphia’s school district, the largest in PA.
Despite more than a decade of the state-controlled School Reform Commission, most Philly schools still struggle to cope with poverty and racial achievement gaps. Funding shortfalls in the wake of Gov. Tom Corbett’s disastrous budget cuts in 2011 led to reductions in support staff, and 95 percent of city schools were without a functional library.
“The takeover by the state of Pennsylvania condemned Philadelphia schools as being deplorable, out of control, unable to govern themselves, broke, bankrupt and lacking in vision,” said Gym. “We’ve shown that the state takeover was the thing that lacked in vision. It was a state that refused to tackled funding inequity. It was a state that refused to look at inequality in how our schools were funded.”
Despite a big budget win for public school funding and Gov. Tom Wolf’s pro-education agenda, Gym and Weingarten promised more political organizing around a fair funding lawsuit headed to the PA Supreme Court this year.
“We’re going to pack the Supreme Court and City Hall and ensure that our state takes funding equity seriously,” she said, to applause from a room replete with educators.