PSP calls on City Council to invest in what’s working in Philadelphia schools

Today, Mark Gleason testified during City Council Budget Hearings to Support the School District’s request for additional city funding as part of reform package. Here is the full text of his testimony:

Good afternoon Mr. Chairman, Committee Members, Councilwoman Quinones-Sanchez and Council members. Thank you for the opportunity to speak today on the critical subject of education funding.

My name is Mark Gleason and I’m the executive director of the Philadelphia School Partnership. The Partnership is a nonprofit working to help create and expand high-performing schools that serve students from low-income communities in the city. We believe the core ingredients of successful schools are outstanding leadership, great teaching talent, parent and community engagement-and most important, an academic culture driven by the unshakable belief that all kids can learn. Last month our Great Schools Fund announced $6 million in grants to support three innovative district high schools. Since 2011 we have committed nearly $20 million to more than twenty schools of all different types in the city. The Fund is on its way to raising and investing $100 million over five years, with the vast majority of that likely headed to public schools. Besides investing in great schools, PSP provides facilitation, fundraising and project management for the Philadelphia Great Schools Compact. Signed 18 months ago, the Compact has catalyzed very real, and meaningful, collaborations amongst all different types of school operators-including district and charter schools-in crucial areas like talent development and simplifying enrollment and application processes.

I began working in Philadelphia two years ago and moved my family here last year. This is a city on the move in many ways. It has increased population by investing in neighborhood redevelopment and quality-of-life initiatives. But as you know the long-term economic vitality of the city, its ability to build on the positive economic developments of the past decade, relies heavily on the quality of the city’s schools, and the ability of today’s students to lead this city as adults in the early 21st century.

I am here to support the School District’s request for additional city funding, as part of a package of inputs that also must include state funding, a state commitment to a fair formula for allocating education dollars by next year, and financial concessions and crucial changes in the teachers contract to allow more strategic deployment of skilled teachers in the schools and classrooms where they can have the most impact.

I am not an expert on tax policy matters, so I’m not here to necessarily endorse the U&O tax over liquor and cigarettes, or over some other funding mechanism. But I am here to urge Council to act decisively and quickly to lead this city toward the complete package of reforms, revenues and cost savings that will enable Dr. Hite and the SRC to invest in teachers, in innovation, and in results for children. As a two-time entrepreneur and job creator, I understand the downsides of new taxes on business and job growth. A long-term plan for the city and the region must have as its pillars outstanding education and a business climate that attracts rather than repels businesses and entrepreneurs.

But I also see the big downside of waiting until late June and hoping the state legislature acts on everything at once-enabling liquor and cigarette taxes, increasing the statewide basic education subsidy, and finding $120 million in new money for Philadelphia schools. During those six weeks, the District will have to lay off hundreds of employees, hold back on hiring to fill specialized, vacant positions, slow down its planning for improving services in receiving schools, and watch as highly sought after teachers and employees get wooed by other districts that don’t have to wait until July to make financial decisions. All because Dr. Hite and his team can’t plan for money they aren’t sure will come in. This body has the ability to act more quickly than Harrisburg, and to give Dr. Hite more ability to preserve talent and plan for September. Maybe there is a better way to do that than U&O. But whatever the vehicle, this city is facing a moment of crisis. It needs leadership, now more than ever.

You should know that I am no bleeding-heart education funder. Money alone does not make schools better! For six years I served on a school board in New Jersey with a $100 million annual budget. Ninety percent of our revenue came from local taxes. After decades of unaccountable tax increases, we diligently went about the work of reducing the rate of spending increase five years in a row, to nearly a 1% increase. We achieved this by reducing costs through employee contributions to health care, outsourcing certain non-academic tasks, identifying and removing waste in special education, and shutting down well-intentioned programs that weren’t delivering student benefits equal to their cost or what was envisioned when the programs were created. We also took steps to give principals more autonomy for allocating resources within their buildings, and holding them accountable for results. Even as we reduced the rate of spending increase, we invested in important new initiatives like full-day kindergarten for all students.

Here we are seeing similar strategic measures from new district leadership. Closing under-enrolled schools, while painful and unpopular, is a necessary step. The district has a team working on finding special education savings that won’t hurt student outcomes. And it is redirecting resources to invest in initiatives and programs that are working or showing great promise.

I have spoken with several of you who have expressed distaste for investing more hard-earned taxpayer money in a school district that has been wasteful, non-strategic and unaccountable in the past. I would be right with you if I believed that would be the case this year, even though my son’s school is one of those facing big budget cuts. But I believe this is a new set of circumstances.

First, this budget crisis is real.

Second, it’s the product of 20 or more years of bad decisions.

Third, borrowing further to band-aid the problem, as the SRC felt forced to do last year, only makes the crisis worse for next year and many years after.

Fourth, risking insolvency only risks a higher level of state control over Philadelphia’s schools, not less.

Fifth, the fact is that Philadelphia provides a smaller share of revenue toward its schools than other large U.S. cities like Chicago and New York, even lower than Pittsburgh across the state.

Sixth, we have new district leadership that is acting differently, showing unprecedented levels of transparency about the budget, and making immensely difficult decisions.

Lastly, let me urge you to see the progress our schools have made. For all of the shortcomings in our public education system, we are moving forward, not backward. The citywide four-year graduation rate has increased by nearly half from just above 40% of all 9th graders graduating in four years to about 67% in a little over a decade.

Yes, the growth of charter schools and other factors have created financial stress because of the way school funding works in Pennsylvania. But let’s not lose sight of progress made. In the past decade, we have seen improving results for students in BOTH district and charter schools. The investment you are being asked to make is an investment to accelerate what’s working, not to reprise the mistakes of the past.

How can you be sure? Last year, members of Council talked a lot about lacking accountability for how money gets spent, or what results it produces. I would argue that’s a solvable problem. Not by attaching strings to the funding for how it gets spent-the definition of success needs to be rooted in outcomes, in how students learn, not in whether this or that is the right input. Management needs to make the input decisions, but you should hold it accountable for the outcomes. When the Philadelphia School Partnership makes school grants, we insist that grantees report regularly to us on academic and financial outcomes. I encourage you to do the same, so taxpayers can see next year and afterward what their investments have brought. You could ask for detailed analyses on how new funding affects staffing and resource levels within schools, tie future funding to progressive reductions in the district’s operating deficit, insist on evidence that new funding has yielded increases in student learning, or any of dozens of others forms of accountability. I’m not suggesting Council start micromanaging the schools. Keep analyses at a high and meaningful level. But we can do with more accountability for return on taxpayer investment in this city, and in this country. Thank you all for listening.