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Testimony to the House Democratic Policy Committee

Helen Gym, Councilwoman At Large

May 11, 2016
Thank you Committee members for coming to Philadelphia to talk about the impact of
Harrisburgs education spending cuts. Welcome to Ground Zero.
Years of education budget cuts have hurt school districts all across the Commonwealth, but years
of persistent underfunding combined with mandatory education reform - namely through
massive charter expansion - have disproportionately hurt Philadelphias public schools and the
educational future of our children. As a result, education has become not merely one of a number
of policy issues in our city; it is our driving and dominating political concern. The success or
failure of our officials is measured by their investment in our public institutions.
Prior to taking office in January of this year, I have been a 20-year advocate of improving and reimagining our public schools. As a former teacher and education newspaper editor, I have
conducted years of budget analysis, done significant research into various education reform
ventures, and researched best practices in curriculum, culturally responsive teaching, safe school
climates, and teacher retention. These are the things I would - under relatively normal conditions
- love to discuss with you.
Unfortunately, due to both negligence and the on-going stalemate in Harrisburg, my top priority
for discussion is the inability of the School District of Philadelphia to meet even the most
minimal standards outlined in the State Code and Pennsylvania Constitution.
Since taking office, I have hosted education town halls throughout the city where hundreds of
Philadelphians have spoken out about the crushing impact of teacher vacancies, the gutting of
basic resources, the need for support staff, and the chaos of school closures and conversions. Our
communities are demanding public schools that respond to their needs, not more reckless
outsourcing and privatization.
Of course, state funding imbalances are part of the problem; but we cannot forget that each year
the state run School Reform Commission spends more and more on the expansion of the charter
sector as well as on the costly and unsuccessful outsourcing of core services. Some of these
challenges result from choices, while others arise from deep flaws in statewide laws and
Since 2013 parents and community members have been documenting violations of the state code
governing education in their childrens schools. Parents have filed more than 800 administrative
complaints with the State Department of Education, citing lack of required curricula, an absence
of core staff, and failure to deliver the required number of hours of instruction from certified
teachers. This year, our schools opened with over 200 teacher vacancies, and thousands of

students have been identified as not having a certified instructor for more than two-thirds of the
In addition to staffing and curricular concerns, many of the School Districts buildings are in dire
need of major structural repairs. Just this school year, Solis-Cohen Elementary could not open on
time due to the emergency repairs. In January, a District employee was gravely injured as he
quickly responded to a boiler explosion at F.S. Edmonds Elementary, thereby protecting the
schools 500 students. Our crumbling school buildings pose a serious safety risk to all students,
teachers, and staff and require immediate attention.
We have documented massive overcrowding in schools - including classrooms routinely in the
40s and some as high as the 60s and up which go unrelieved for weeks. We have a troubling and
regularly deployed practice of split grades in which students from two different grade levels are
merged together - not for pedagogical purposes, but for the budgetary reason of not being able to
either pay or hire a teacher in the classroom. When the state of Pennsylvania requires every child
be on grade level, it makes no sense to deny children being in the actual grade in which they
Charter schools have not been the answer. Charter schools are routinely closing mid-year, or
being targeted for closure as a result of financial mismanagement or poor academic performance.
We have one of the worst charter school laws in the country - one that has routinely denied
school districts an ability to regularly monitor charter school performance, control finances
through enrollment caps, or even close down poor performers without years and years of appeals.
The elimination of charter school reimbursements means that charters have a direct and negative
impact on children in district-managed schools. With every expansion, the District chooses to
invest in some students at the expense of others. As a result, our public and charter schools have
become two massive, unstable systems - neither of which is fully meeting the needs of children.
Increasingly, our School Reform Commission has exhibited many of the problems of a 15-yearold dinosaur. This year the State Supreme Court stated that the SRC had unconstitutionally
abused its powers - granting itself the power to break a teachers contract, install an unqualified
superintendent, and cut short public processes governing school closures, as examples. Without
equivocation, the SRC must go. The problems of our schools will not be fixed through
distractions like charter schools and entities imbued with extraordinary powers as the PA
charter law grants the SRC.
The education funding crisis in Philadelphia ends when we enact a real statewide fair funding
formula that not only grants funding based on need, enrollment and a plan to reduce inequity but
also restores Districts back to wholeness who were disproportionately impacted in 2011. As we
consider statewide education policy, not only is an equity-based funding approach essential, but
so too is upholding the basic functions of a school district. Schools must provide students with a

full curriculum, as outlined in the state code. Schools must also provide sufficient numbers of
teachers and support staff to execute the requirements specified in state law.
In addition to securing a fully-funded fair funding formula that addresses the remaining gap
between our Districts 2011 and current state funding, I ask that the House Democratic Policy
Committee, in partnership with its colleagues in the Senate:
Reaffirm and strengthen the Commonwealths commitment to the School Code and not only
uphold rigorous curricular requirements but also to commit to conducting regular curricular
audits to ensure districts are providing what students both need and deserve;
Undertake a thorough review of our state charter law, with an eye toward strengthening
authorizers, reinstituting charter reimbursements to districts, increasing charter school
accountability, and empowering local communities to manage the growth of their charter school
Submit an amicus brief supporting the ongoing fair funding lawsuit that is scheduled for oral
arguments before the Pennsylvania Supreme Court in September;
Return control of Philadelphias schools to Philadelphia and refute any and all attempts to
expand state control over schools;
Conduct a thorough review of school facilities, and both invest in and strengthen capital budgets
and spending on upgrading school buildings;
Reject funding deals that will hamper our ability to adequately fund our public schools (e.g.
funding increases tied to the expansion of charter schools or the creation of more state-controlled
school networks); and
Oppose union busting and anti-teacher legislation.

Thank you for inviting me to testify today. I look forward to our continued partnership.