October 30, 2006

Financial Woes in the Philly School District

Readership of the Philly Inquirer and Daily News is so low that these papers are being forced to lay-off staff. One reason is the high incidence of lame-brained agenda journalism, such as articles like this one on the "protests" which have arisen due to the budget cuts threatened by the Philly School District.
Parents and students will rally outside school district headquarters this afternoon to protest cuts being considered to erase a \$73 million budget shortfall.

"We're drawing a line in the sand," said Helen Gym, a parent activist. "We're calling for a protective order on our schools. There will not be another school cut."

The protest comes in the wake of last week's finger pointing among city and school officials over the budget deficit.

The article starts off with the big number fallacy--big numbers given out of context look impressive. The author might as well say 289.5 gazillion; that means about as much sense to the reader. Better yet, the author should have just written the first paragraph like this to achieve the same effect:
Parents and students will rally outside school district headquarters this afternoon to protest cuts being considered to erase a really super big budget shortfall.
Had the journalist lacked an agenda and wanted to accurately report the budget shortfall in an informative way it would have taken five minutes of work.

According to the district's own budget numbers, it had \$1.9 billion dollars budgeted for FY 2005/2006 and there were 176,000 students attending schools in the district. Do the math.

A \$73 million cut, represents a cut of \$414 per student from operating expenditures of about \$10,875 per student. (Actually, according to School Matters, the district's total expenditures were \$12,761 per pupil in 2004 alone which is a better indicator of the district's profligate spending.)

That's a cut of about 4.0%. Are the tears welling-up yet?

How about if I told you this little nugget from p. 23 of the budget:
Enrollment in District-operated schools continues to decline from about 182,000 to about 176,000 in part due to the DistrictÃ‚’s continued support for charter school expansion.
Let's do the math: (182,000 -176,000)(\$10,875) = \$65 million. So, if the district trimmed expenses to account for the drop of 6,000 students this year, the cut needed would be only \$8 million at best.

And, if the district hadn't built the School of the Future (p. 13), cost \$63 million, they'd be running a \$55 million surplus.

Let's recap:
• The district spends somewhere between about \$11k to \$13k per student. Cutting \$414 per student is like removing a pimple of the ass of this bloated budget.
• The district lost 6,000 students, so cuts should be inevitable and shouldn't affect the quality of education.
• The district wastes a lot of money, such as on boondoogles like the school of the future.
I also noticed that the journalist failed to mention that the mayor of Philadelphia, a majority of councilmen, and the governor of Pennsylvania are all Democrats. I'm sure, if they'd been all Republicans, party affiliation would have been mentioned somewhere in the article a week before elections.

This is one reason why I am down to only getting the Sunday newspaper and, even then, most of them go straight into the trashcan without being read.

Anonymous said...

I like the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, myself.

The local rag is crap.

MassParent said...

How are charter schools financed in Pennsylvania? It looks similar to Mass, where the sending district has to pay 100% of the cost of charter students.

With traditional public school choice, students only carry their state aide with them.

In Mass, that means if you send 10 kids out to a charter school, and bring about 25 kids in from other districts, you wind up about breaking even on funding.

The state makes choices about approving charters, but send the bills down to municipalities as an unfunded mandate. Here, opposition to charter schools by municipalities and parents of public school kids would go away if the state had accountability for paying more of the bill for charter students. We'd get only as many charter schools as the state was willing to pay for, and municipalities wouldn't have to keep raising property taxes to cover mandates handed down by the state.

Anonymous said...

Econ 101:

The state doesn't pay for anything. Taxes do. Taxpayers pay -- not the state or the school system.

allen said...

massparent wrote:

Here, opposition to charter schools by municipalities and parents of public school kids would go away if the state had accountability for paying more of the bill for charter students.

I'm sure it would. The same number of dollars with fewer kids to have to spend it on? Whoo-hoo!

By the way, charter schools are public schools. They're just not appendages of a school district. That means that all the money that goes to a charter school is spent in that school presumably educating kids. Not so at the district-based school. They get by with whatever the administration can spare after the vital administrative function is funded.

Maybe you ought to do some homework and calculate how many teachers aren't being hired because a district needs a district superintendant.

MassParent said...

But which taxpayers pay.

The state authorizes charters, but passes the bill to local property taxpayers in Massachusetts. There is no accountability; the unelected board of ed does not have to consider efficiency or local fiscal impact.

Why not treat charter schools just like any other public school for choice, and send along the state funds? Why should sending a kid to a charter school cost a town so much more than sending a kid to a neighboring town's public school?

KDeRosa said...

I belive that districts are supposed to pay the charter for each student that attends from the district. The amount equals the operating expeditures on a per student basis. In a sense the money is following the student. I see no reason why the district should retain this money for students it is no longer educating.

Anonymous said...

"There is no accountability"

There is no accountability in the public schools.

MassParent said...

Maybe no accountability in your public schools, but rural public schools in Mass are accountable to parents and town meetings. Or they were, until No Child Left Behind.

KDeRosa said...

I heard NCLB is also responsible for toothaches, poverty, and the middle-east crisis as well.

allen said...

You wouldn't happen to be an authority on rural Massachusetts school districts, would you? If not then you must be generalizing from a single case. So which one's it going to be?

The state authorizes charters, but passes the bill to local property taxpayers in Massachusetts.

Since the state also authorizes the existence of school districts it would seem that the charter schools have exactly the same claim on local property tax money as do the districts.

There is no accountability; the unelected board of ed does not have to consider efficiency or local fiscal impact.

Consider efficiency? When has efficiency ever been a concern in the public education system? And if accountability were a fixture of the district-based public education system then I'm thinking there wouldn't be nearly so many illiterates getting high school diplomas.

You want accountability? Why don't you tell me how going hat in hand to talk for the eleventy-seventh time about your kid's problems with reading and getting the same, old "we're doing all we can" is an expression of accountability? Accountability starts the day a lousy school can be shut down because it's lousy as determined by the parents who entrust their kid's educations to the people who work in that school.

Why not treat charter schools just like any other public school for choice, and send along the state funds?

Because the people of Massachusetts have determined, through their elected representatives that this is the way to fund charter schools. Don't like? Convince a large enough group of voters that you're right and, biddy-bim, biddy-bum, the law gets changed.

Why should sending a kid to a charter school cost a town so much more than sending a kid to a neighboring town's public school?

Has it been established that charter schools cost a town so much more than sending a kid to a neighboring town's public schools? I must have missed that. Could you, perhaps, provide some substantiation? Not editorials from a union newsletter please. I've been down that road before.

Anonymous said...

"It looks similar to Mass, where the sending district has to pay 100% of the cost of charter students. With traditional public school choice, students only carry their state aide with them."

What is "traditional public school choice"? Is this something in Mass., or is this something else?

It seems to me that it all depends on whether the student is counted for state aid in the sending or receiving town or school. If the charter school gets no state aid directly, then the state portion should follow the student from their home town (along with the rest of the tuition) and the amount of state aid to the sending town will be calculated including that child. Perhaps for kids that go to other towns' schools, that child is counted in the state aid to that town.

You seem to be saying that state aid does not follow the student for charter schools; that the sending town has to pay the state's portion. If this is true, which I find very hard to believe, then the state saves a ton of money when kids go to charter schools. As I said, I don't believe this. Perhaps you have a link that explains this law.

"In Mass, that means if you send 10 kids out to a charter school, and bring about 25 kids in from other districts, you wind up about breaking even on funding."

This doesn't make any sense. If kids from other towns go to your schools, they only bring their state aid with them? Who pays the rest? The people in your town? Isn't it the responsibility of the people in your town to pay for the tuition of any student in your town, no matter which "public" school he/she goes to?

My guess is that you don't like paying tuition for students in your town who go to charter schools. This is exactly the same problem in our town. Since our schools are "High Performing" on the state tests, they don't want any student to go to a charter school and take the money with them. They think it's the schools' money.

Our town uses an interesting twist to the argument. The sending town has to pay the full PER-PUPIL cost of the charter school (it still gets the state portion), but our schools and school committee say that we should pay only the INCREMENTAL per-pupil cost. What is this cost? It's the cost to the school for adding one more student. This cost is really zero because that's what it costs to add just one student to any school. They don't use zero because that would look really stupid, so they come up with some number that is about one-half of the cost of the full per-pupil tuition.

It's interesting to what lengths schools go to rig the numbers.

"We'd get only as many charter schools as the state was willing to pay for, ..."

First, you argue that the problem is that your town has to pay the state's portion, but now you talk about wanting the state to "pay for" charter schools. You want them to pay more than the normal per-pupil state aid? You want the state to pay for your town's portion of educating your town's kids when they go to charter schools?

I think you're playing fast and loose with the numbers and the law.

MassParent said...

I'm a private sector computer programmer. I've become more knowledgable about some aspects of schools than I planned to watching state & federal fiasco after fiasco unfold at my kid's local public school.

The state formula for charters is different than the state formula for public choice. Public choice, you send along the state support, which means on median about 40% of the budget. Charters ramp up to 100% of tuition over four years. Our town now pays something like \$12K per student out to a charter, and something like \$5K per student for public choice students coming in or going out. We have more kids coming in than going out, but lose a bunch of bucks on choice.

Much of the cost of our small school is fixed. We get some discression to decide to have one classroom in a grade level rather than two sometimes, but that's about the extent of our flexibility. So the idea that there is no extra burden on local taxpayers since the money just follows the students we'd have to pay for one way or another doesn't work out here.

Anonymous said...

"Maybe no accountability in your public schools, but rural public schools in Mass are accountable to parents and town meetings. Or they were, until No Child Left Behind."

In your psychotic mind only. How many teachers did you people fire because their students weren't passing exams?

How many again?

Anonymous said...

"I'm a private sector computer programmer."

Sure, you are.

I've seen nothing but unsubstantiated nonsense from you, and when you do get backed into a corner to provide data, you disappear. I will not take anything you say seriously, unless you start providing data.

Anonymous said...

"Public choice, you send along the state support, which means on median about 40% of the budget."

OK. This sounds right. The state support follows the child, although I wish our town got 40% from the state! For a non-urban town, that's huge!

"Charters ramp up to 100% of tuition over four years."

"Ramp up"?

Does this mean that your town starts by paying less than the full tuition of the charter school? What is the starting point? Who pays the rest?

"Our town now pays something like \$12K per student out to a charter, and something like \$5K per student for public choice students coming in or going out."

Is the \$12K the 100% ramped up cost? Are you are saying that this is what the town pays without any portion from the state? In other words, the state doesn't count charter school students in their aid formula to towns? Or, do they have a different formula?

I assume that the \$5K is 60% of your cost per pupil and that the other 40% is the state's portion? That would make the cost per student in your town about \$8300. Please give us your zip code so I can look this up on NCES.

"We have more kids coming in than going out, but lose a bunch of bucks on choice."

So you don't gain or lose anything (per-pupil) because of public choice.

For public school students (including charters), it is the responsibility of the town to pay for their education. Some schools (like in our town), don't like this idea and try to create the image that the town or schools are losing money. You seem to be making the case that the state does not subsidize charter school students the same as regular public school students. As I said before, I find this hard to believe. You will have to show some evidence.

It seems that the charter school cost (\$12K) is more than the cost at your town schools (\$8300). This would cost the town more, but charter schools are legal and the town has the responsibility to pay for the education.

If your town's schools are good, then it might be irritating to have to pay to send kids to a more expensive charter school based on the opinion and choice of the parents. I don't like "un-schooling" approaches to education, but if some parents wanted that kind of school for their kids, then that is really their choice.

In my town, the emphasis is on the lowest level learners. There is one charter (un-)schooling choice that (maybe) 6 kids go to. The state has a moratorium on new charters because the schools complained that kids shouldn't be allowed to go to charter schools from "High Performing" towns. Of course, we all know there is nothing high performing about these low cutoff standards.

For the more willing and able kids, there is only low expectations and bad curricula. Many parents (20-25% in our town) send their kids to private schools and save our small town MILLIONS of dollars in education costs a year. It is incredibly arrogant of the schools (and many parents) to complain about a small number of students who go to charter schools as if they are taking away money from the public schools. Some feel that if parents want their kids to go to a different school, then it's just like sending the kids to a private school and that the parents should pay. This presumes that the schools are doing a good job for all kids, and that the education is based on something more than opinion.

Anyways, the only legitimate complaint you might have is that the state does not subsidize charter school students in any form. You have to prove this because I don't believe it.

Anonymous said...

The funding of elementary and secondary public schools here in Mass is quite a mess. I understand most of the money for schools in a town is supplied by the town. I have never heard anyone talk of a district when talking about funding schools in Mass. (Perhaps town = district?)

Rural areas may have different arrangements but I am only familiar with Middlesex County.

Very little funding comes from the Commonwealth (47th in the nation for state support of public education according to the mass teachers assoc.) and if charter schools are a state responsibility towns may be forced to spend money on charter schools that are not a part of their budgeting purview. Towns can only increase taxes by %2.5 per year by law without a taxpayer voted override providing some restraint on budgets causing consternation any time there is a change.

In the end we spend a lot on education here in Mass. and we certainly get results! Our schools are the best in the country and over half of our graduates can read at an 8th grade level! Take that Penn!

Anonymous said...

"Very little funding comes from the Commonwealth (47th in the nation for state support of public education according to the mass teachers assoc.) ..."

So Massachusetts does not contribute about 40% as massparent claims? That seemed like a lot to me.

"... and if charter schools are a state responsibility towns may be forced to spend money on charter schools that are not a part of their budgeting purview."

Well, charter schools are "public" schools and towns are required to pay for public education. I think that in our state, charter schools are required to accept the cost per student amount from the sending town. Charter schools cannot set any tuition they want.

The real problem is that (regular) public schools do not want to lose control over students and money. (students == money) In our town, charter students are a separate line item in the budget. They are not directly part of the school budgetary process. Still, many feel that more charter students means less money for the regular schools. This is true, of course, because it should take less money to educate less students.

It's really all about (their) money.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps town = district?"

I don't know about Taxachussetts, but this is certainly not the case in Kentucky, Indiana, or Pennsylvania. And in Pennsylvania (though not in the other two states), school districts cross township/borough boundaries.

MassParent said...

Mass funding is a mess, yes.

The statewide average target is I believe 39%. That is supposed to vary by ability to pay and burden, but actually varies by historical accident and by the fact that some municipalities that were tax-averse before Prop 2.5 limited property taxes now get subsidized by the state more than others. The state decided everyone is entitled to a good education, not just those living in places that supported public schools before limits were placed on property taxation.

Districts are usually towns, but there are regional high schools in a lot of rural areas that serve a number of towns. Most rural towns have their own small local school and send kids out to a regional high school.

I have heard the same figure for Mass, that it is among the lowest states in terms of state support for public schools. I can't confirm that with any knowledge of national figures.

MassParent said...

To answer the other question - tuition for charter schools comes off the top of state aide.

Our town has less than 10 students going to charters, but they soak up about a quarter of our state aide. That is, 10 out of 200 kids get 25 out of 100 dollars of state aide.

The state calculates we should receive about median aid, but they don't have enough funds to do that (because some other median-income towns that traditionally did not support their local school get over-subsidized by the state), so we get considerably less.

Anonymous said...

"The statewide average target is I believe 39%."

This is not a small amount by any standard. But the size of state funding is a separate issue. You were complaining about charter schools and I am trying to see exactly what your problem is?

"To answer the other question - tuition for charter schools comes off the top of state aide."

This doesn't make sense. Do you get state aid for each child or do you not? Does this aid vary based on whether a child goes to a charter school or not? Does the state tell you how to spend your state aid?

"Our town has less than 10 students going to charters, but they soak up about a quarter of our state aide."

It sounds like you are paying the full amount of the charter school costs out of state aid. This is not a valid comparison. Your town is required to pay its share for each student, whether they go to the regular public school or a charter school.

You also haven't explained your comment of ramping up?

"The state calculates we should receive about median aid, but they don't have enough funds to do that (because some other median-income towns that traditionally did not support their local school get over-subsidized by the state), so we get considerably less."

This is a separate issue. All non-urban towns have this problem. Most states decide to give more to the urban areas and less to the rural/affluent areas. This has NOTHING to do with charter schools.

In our town, the complaint is either people don't want their taxes to go up (period), or they think that charter school costs are subtracted from the regular school budget (and away from their kids).

Of course, if the student is leaving the town school to go to a charter, they have one less student to teach and their budget should go down. If the student goes from a private school to a charter school, the budget (or town taxes) should go up because it is the responsibility of the town to pay for this student. The same is true if new kids move into town. And, as new people move into town, the revenue from property taxes go up.

For small towns and small numbers of students, this can seem like an unfair exchange. One student leaves the town school for a charter school and the town has to pay the full cost-per-pupil of the charter school. But having one student leave a town school doesn't mean that you can reduce the school budget by the same amount. This is the argument our town likes to make.

But it all balances out in the end. At some point, when enough students leave to go to charter schools, the town can layoff one or more teachers and save a lot of money.

At some point, it's more economical to send students off to another town. Our kids have always gone to the high school in the next town over. Recently, many wanted to do this for the kids in middle school. Class sizes are dropping and the cost-per-student is going through the roof (\$15,000+). The town would save a lot of money. This is a tough decision, but many in our town seem to think that kids who go to charter schools are helping to create this problem. However, much of the problem is the inability of the school to downsize due to fewer students. Parents love the smaller class sizes and really fight when teachers are finally let go. Schools will fight anything that will reduce their budget, even if they have less students to teach. Many try to find all sorts of reasons to blame charter schools for this problem.

There are economies of scale and more schools (of any type) will increase total overhead costs. But this is NOT what you are arguing. You are arguing that charter school students cost your town more than regular students.