So now the Philadelphia School District has its $45 million in state aid—and a bit of breathing room. Now what?
The good news is that 400 staffers are being rehired to return to the district’s schools, giving overburdened teachers and principals some much-needed relief in the classrooms and hallways. The bad news? All that does is return the district to something akin to the pre-budget-doomsday status quo—a status quo that, you’ll remember, was filled with low test scores, high dropout rates and precious few students continuing their education in college. The district has spent the last few months just trying to balance the budget; improving the actual education our kids receive has (understandably) been almost nowhere on the agenda.
So, again, now what?
A clue to the challenge can be found in a new report from the Southern Education Foundation which shows that nearly half—48 percent—of America’s public school students are classified as “low income students,” up from 38 percent a decade earlier. (The definition covers students who qualify for free or reduced lunches.) Unlike private schools, public schools take all comers, and the students they take increasingly come to them with troubled foundations. No wonder our public schools are so challenged!
The report doesn’t offer specific information about Philadelphia, but it does offer some information about our problems—both educational and political. It turns out that Pennsylvania is actually doing relatively well: “Just” 39 percent of students across the state come from low-income families. But in the state’s cities over 100,000 people—Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Allentown, and Erie—the percentage of poor children in public schools climbs to an astonishing 75 percent.
If you are a child in a Philadelphia public school, in other words, you are almost certainly poor.
This might explain a few things. It certain suggests that Philadelphia teachers—while under fire from the governor and the SRC—are actually kind of heroic. While education reformers want to take away their job security and cut their pensions, teachers in Philadelphia are trying to educate a population of kids that comes to school extraordinarily challenged before the first book is opened.
As The Atlantic noted in is coverage of the report: “Poverty—or in many cases, near poverty—is the 50 pound backpack dragging down U.S. students.”
Which would suggest that the current wave of education reform—focused on riding schools of “bad teachers” and sending kids to private charters in a never-ending wave of disruption and destruction—is a lot of time and energy being expended on all the wrong stuff.
As Diane Ravitch, a former “reformer” turned public school crusader, noted recently: “Do teachers have the power to change children’s lives? Yes, they do. Are schools and teachers powerful enough to end poverty? No. Poverty rates rise and fall in response to economic trends, not to the rise or fall of test scores.”
So if Philadelphia leaders want to improve Philadelphia schools, the most effective thing they can do is abandon the umpteen-billion reform efforts that have failed over the decades, and instead focus like hell on mitigating child poverty. To its credit, Mayor Nutter’s administration has already mounted some efforts in that direction—but it’s not enough, not yet.
This is harder than firing teachers or cutting their pay. The good news? The rest of the country’s public schools are serving increasingly impoverished student populations too—if we in Philadelphia can figure out how best to serve those students, it’s possible we’ll be able to lead our entire nation to a brighter future. We face tough odds. But we also have a huge opportunity.