Many public-school activists cheered when the vote was cast. They had been calling for a return to local control for schools since the 2001 move by state lawmakers took it from the city to both shore up the district’s finances and bolster sagging test scores.
It was a moment of clear victory for those advocates and local legislators who had promised to restore control of local schools to the city. It was a promise Mayor Jim Kenney had made and, as soon as the paperwork is signed by state lawmakers, it will be a promise delivered. Kenney will oversee a process of nominating new members for a 9-member board that will hopefully get to work early next year. If all goes well, students, parents and teachers should not experience any turbulence in the transition.
But now that the schools are back under local control, what’s next?
The SRC could point to incremental improvements. Test scores rose under their watch. And a graduation rate that was less than 50 percent is currently about 67 percent. The school district was able to meet payroll. Catastrophe is no longer imminent.
There is yet still a lot more work to do.
The first and most pressing issue is funding. The district currently faces a $103 million deficit that lawmakers have said could balloon to $700 million over the next five years. Without increases in funding the city’s schools could soon face the same perils that prompted the state takeover in the first place.
There have been multiple solutions proposed to fill the funding gap. Kenney has talked about a new tax. City Councilman Allan Domb introduced a bill to collect outstanding property taxes in an effort to close the funding gap.
Outgoing SRC chairman Bill Green warned that any delay in funding action would make the situation even worse. He proposed an immediate increase in the city’s share of funding by $150 million. But the 11 percent property tax increase required to raise that sort of funding makes any such promise a political impossibility.
Something must give, though.
In a joint statement from Kenney and City Council President Darrell Clark, both men promised to find a way for the city to increase its share of the school funding pie.
“[W]e understand that Philadelphia must make the sacrifices necessary to provide the resources all students in Philadelphia schools need to succeed,” the statement reads.
While the return to local control of Philadelphia schools is no doubt a long-term good, if for no other reason than to return local accountability to leaders in the city that have to answer to city residents directly, the road forward is not clear. Will new taxes be needed to set funding levels straight? Is there any hope that a lawsuit brought be public school parents over unfair state funding will succeed and help fund city schools?
It’s an awful lot of uncertainty for the nearly 200,000 city children in public and charter schools.