Philly’s School Reform Commission Ends, Questions Abound for Residents & Taxpayers

The Philadelphia School Reform Commission has voted to dissolve itself. The 16-year experiment has been a mixed bag. The school district continues to face tough financial times with a looming $100 million deficit, despite an increase in state funding. Academic outcomes remain appallingly low and thousands of Philadelphia children now attend higher-performing charter schools or private options through the popular Education Improvement Tax Credit and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit programs.

Mayor Kenney is set to propose a “financial fix” for the district in February (likely a tax increase), and return control of the school district to a nine-member school board by July. The new school board will be appointed by the mayor according to the city’s home rule charter. Currently, three SRC members are appointed by the governor and two are appointed by the mayor.

So far, local education choice advocates have been notably neutral to the announcement. It is unclear how the new school board will view charter schools and other education choice options. Outside of Philadelphia, the big question is what the return to an appointed school board will mean for state taxpayers who have funded a series of school district bailouts.

Here is what we do know about the SRC experiment:

1. Despite state bailouts and tax hikes, the school district continues to struggle financially:

  • 2013: Facing a $300 million deficit, the district considers delaying the start of school. The legislature votes to extend Philly’s additional sales tax. Philadelphia City Council then diverts some money from the sales tax extension to schools in 2015. In Harrisburg, Gov. Corbett authorizes the release of a one-time cash infusion of $45 million.
  • 2014: The legislature authorizes a $2 per-pack cigarette tax to help Philly schools close a $93 million budget gap.
  • 2016: The legislature institutes a revenue floor for the cigarette tax. Philadelphia schools receive at least $58 million, even if the tax doesn’t raise that amount. The sunset provision on the tax is eliminated. That same year the legislature legalizes Uber and Lyft. Included in this legislation is a provision that sends 2/3 of the revenue from local taxes on ridesharing to the Philly School District. The revenue changes were made in anticipation of predicted future budget shortfalls.

2. Academic performance remains unacceptable:

In the 2001-02 school year, the first full school year under the SRC, just 18% of Philadelphia 8th graders were proficient in math. In reading, only 24% met proficiency. Fast-forward to the end of the SRC’s tenure and the results are disappointingly similar. In 2016-17 only 16% of Philadelphia 8th graders were proficient in math and 33% in reading. In other words, two-thirds of 8th graders were behind when the SRC was created and two thirds are still behind.

3. Charter school expansion and tax credit programs provide hope:

The SRC has presided over a large expansion in charter schools. About one-third of district students now choose to attend a charter school. A 2015 study by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found Philadelphia students in charter schools experience a higher rate of growth on test scores than their peers in district schools. Charter students, it notes, receive the equivalent of an additional 43 days in reading and math instruction.

4. Harrisburg isn't going to stop paying attention:

Even if Mayor Kenney is successful in raising taxes to stave off a financial disaster, Philadelphia's long history of seeking state aid—the state provides $1.5 billion for the district, approximately half its total revenue—and its vibrant charter school movement ensure debates over state education funding, union reform, and parental choice will continue for years to come.

It is unclear what the end of the SRC means for Philadelphia’s children. However, it is clear that placing accountability at the most local level, with parents, is raising academic achievement and creating a brighter future for Philadelphia families.