Off the Cuff: 50th Anniversary

A look back at one of Philadelphia's most troubling issues

Fifty years ago this month, I began writing this column. That’s a half-century of poking at what ails Philadelphia, and there’s been no lack of material. Recently, while rummaging through some past columns, I found one from October 1974 that addressed a problem that not only is still with us, but has gotten much worse. Reading it was enough to make me want to sneak onto one of those beach chairs on this month’s cover and hide out for the summer.

Here’s the column, written 37 years ago, in its entirety. (One historical note: Richardson Dilworth was Mayor from 1956 until 1962.)

I remember having lunch with Dick Dilworth a number of years ago during a period when the Philadelphia Board of Education was in the midst of one of its annual financial crises. “Why don’t you just shut the schools down?” I asked him.

“For heaven’s sake,” Dilworth moaned, “if those kids were out in the street all day they’d tear this town apart.”

Well, as we write this, not too much has changed. The school board is in the middle of still another of its financial crises, and everybody is frantically scurrying around trying to find a way to keep the schools from closing down. Perhaps they’ll come up with a patchwork solution. If they do, it will only be temporary.

I will stick to my original suggestion. Just shut down the schools and keep them closed until we can come up with a sensible reason to keep them open and a way to pay for that happy event.

Back in 1964 we published an article called “Crisis in the Classroom.” The pandemonium conditions described in that piece brought all sorts of official denunciations. It was news at the time, but subsequently the deplorable conditions of many Philadelphia schools have been enshrined in folklore.

It’s not only the kids who present the problems. Many of the teachers flunk out by any standards. As their role has changed from educator to policeman, they have lost whatever motivation ever brought them into the profession. As their pay scales have risen, they have put less time and effort into their work until, today, they are mere timeservers crowding the public trough until pension times come rolling in.

The kids know it, and so do their parents. It’s pretty hard to feel like paying them more money in the face of their massive fluff-off.

This time the wisest thing to do on the part of the Board of Education might be just to throw in the towel—close up the schools and rethink the question of what the system is supposed to be doing. Do we need to keep kids in school until the age of 16 when the ones who are given diplomas still don’t know how to read?

The real problems, of course, lie outside the schools. And, at the rate we’re working on them, it could be a generation or two before they’re solved.

In the meantime, the schools continue to deteriorate and nobody knows what to do. Except spend more and more money every year to buy less and less education for our kids. Unfortunately, nothing is achieved by pumping more money into a moribund district. And nobody at the moment really cares about reviving the corpse.

After the schools are closed six months or so, I suspect all of us will start to get a little concerned. And maybe we can come up with real answers.

If there are real answers.

No wonder sitting in a beach chair, accompanied by a bottle of Johnnie Walker, sounds so inviting.