Philly Schools—Is Money Really the Problem?

House majority leader Eric Cantor is in Philadelphia today to pick up Attorney General Eric Holder’s gauntlet. Holder’s DOJ has filed suit to shut down a Louisiana school voucher program that serves an overwhelmingly African American population, on the grounds that… it’s bad for African Americans. Cantor vows to fight the DOJ if Holder doesn’t drop the suit, and he’s delivering his message at a Philly charter school serving mostly African American kids—one that has about six times as many applicants as it has places.

Apart from its proximity to DC, Philly might seem an odd location for Cantor’s presser, but the city of brotherly love is going through an educational drama of its own. The Philadelphia School District has had budget problems for years. It’s seen horrendous violence, plummeting enrollment, and commensurate staff layoffs and school closures. Most media accounts bewail lack of funding as the key problem. Salon.com recently ran a story with the subhead: “Pennsylvania’s right-wing governor drains public schools of basic funds.” CBSNews laments “the same old problem: not enough money.”

What those and all other Philly school district stories I’ve seen have in common is that they fail to say how much the district actually spends per pupil. Not having attended journalism school, I missed whatever class teaches education reporters to omit the single most important fact in their stories, so allow me try to fill in the blank.

A quick Google search reveals that Philly’s 2013-14 budget is $3.03 billion (p. 50), of which $862 million is for charter schools. The district serves 136,000 students in its regular public schools and another 63,000 in charter schools. So the regular public schools, the ones that are being “systematically murdered” by budget cuts, spend $15,941 per pupil. That’s about $3,000 more than the national average. It’s also $1,600 more than the day tuition at Temple University. The city’s charter schools receive about $2,300 less than the regular public schools.

That’s not to say that the district’s classrooms are fully stocked with supplies or that the city’s best teachers are paid what they’re worth. What it does suggest is that the cause of those problems may have less to do with the amount of funding available than with the way it is allocated. After all, Washington, DC spends around $29,000 per pupildouble what Philly does—and it performs worse in both reading and math by the 8th grade.