New Philadelphia Parents Face Our City’s Failing School System

As more 20- and 30-somethings decide to stay in the city to raise their children, Philly's school problem isn't just a big issue—it's the only issue.

School anxiety isn’t limited to West Philly. It spreads all over this city, in every place youngish middle-class families are choosing to live. And Penn Alexander isn’t the only “good school”; a handful of charters and publics are recognized as such, too—schools like Meredith, McCall, Greenfield. But only a handful. Fact is, there are far more Leas than Penn Alexanders.

“You hit a point in your life, and then it’s all you hear anyone talk about,” says my friend Katie, a business owner who lives in Graduate Hospital with her almost-two-year-old. “Unless you live in a couple of very specific areas, there’s so much uncertainty in this process, you have to form Plan A and Plan B—and then plans C, D, E and F.” There are charter applications, there are public-school transfers one can apply for and lotteries one can hope to win, there are a few decent parochial schools still hanging on, and there are one or two Friends schools with tuitions that aren’t yet in the five-digit range. But still, if Plan F doesn’t work? “I try not to worry about that,” she says. “Yet.”

It’s noteworthy that the worry we’re talking about here is a problem of a certain demographic of parent, not every parent. If you’re very rich, you have every choice, and no anxiety. If you’re poor, or at least not quite middle-class, then your anxiety comes from having no choice. Your kid’s school might even be closing now, because it’s underpopulated or falling apart. It’s hard to argue that there’s any anxiety worse than that.

But the angst of the particular city p­arent we’re talking about here is nevertheless important, because it is increasingly a defining characteristic of Philadelphia, as more and more 20- and 30-somethings decide to stay in the city. These parents—and future parents—have a multitude of w­orries about schools. They worry about below-national-average test scores. They worry because their neighbors don’t seem to
send their kids to the neighborhood school. They worry because the school isn’t as racially or economically or socially diverse as they’d like a city school to be.

And so the angst of this city-dweller is also the angst of the entire city, because—as the Center City District noted in its annual report in 2011—the best hope of keeping Philly relevant over the next decade is to hold onto these young, college-educated professionals as they have kids—and the only way to do that is with “competitive and responsive schools.”

Yet how—and if—the city will ever do that remains painfully unclear, given that the school district is beyond broke, facing a possible $1.1 billion deficit over the next five years. Even the planned school closures, aimed at narrowing the deficit, seem unlikely to improve the remaining schools.

“It’s like the city is saying ‘Screw you’ to us,” says one South Philly mom, who applied for two public-school transfers, two charter schools and one private school, because she didn’t think the local public school was strong enough. (Her daughter now attends a charter.) “Look, we’ve bought two houses now. We’ve paid the wage tax, and I don’t even mind. We love it here. We’re committed to it. But it’s just like the city has given up. It’s like they’re saying, ‘Come back to Philly … when your kids are 18.’”

Even the most committed relationships have their breaking point.