School District’s “Doomsday Budget” Will Turn Philly Into Detroit Redux

City and state leaders have little time to avert a disaster.

Earlier this spring, I committed an act of faith—I offered the universe a sign that I believe in Philadelphia, that this city will not allow itself to become a Detroit Redux, that ultimately our leaders will do what they must to ensure we don’t become an utter disaster.

I enrolled my son in kindergarten. At a public school. In Philadelphia.

Now, granted, that school was Greenfield School, which this magazine not so long ago declared to be one of Philadelphia’s great schools—largely because of parents who have been able to raise, at times, hundreds of thousands of dollars for projects to keep the school in good repair and offering a good education. So the risk is somewhat mitigated: We’re drafting off our, ahem, more well-to-do neighbors to provide our son with a decent education—knowing we can’t afford one of the city’s great private schools, and hoping against hope we won’t have to move to the suburbs. We like city life.

The problem, of course, is that Philadelphia Public Schools are collectively on the brink. The School Resource Commission last week passed a “doomsday budget” that commits the district to opening classes in the fall “without new books, paper, clubs, counselors, librarians, assistant principals, or secretaries.”

Without the stuff that makes school school in other words—without the accoutrements that turn those large buildings full of young bodies into something more than a temporary warehouse for this city’s diseased, destroyed future.

My guess? My hope? What we’re witnessing here is an act of brinksmanship. That our leaders—across the city and state—will not allow a major city’s schools to simply commit suicide on their watch. That somebody will come to the rescue and buy us a year or two of our children’s education. That my wife and I won’t have to make those big, life-altering decisions.

Make no mistake, we will if we have to.

And so, I’m guessing, will many of the other young, college-aged professional parents who have helped Center City bloom over the last decade. More than 17,000 children were born in the neighborhood between 2000 and 2008—from under 300 in 1990 alone. When we decided to move ourmy family to Philadelphia from Kansas in 2008, it was largely because the number of pregnant moms and strollers I saw around Fitler Square made us feel safe in doing so.

Imagine what Center City becomes if those 17,000 kids and their families flee.

It’s a horrible thing to threaten—all the more horrible because of all the race and class implications: We can vow to leave Philadelphia’s crumblling schools because we possess the socioeconomic capital to actually choose to leave if we have to. It’s not fair by a long shot, but there are tens of thousands of families in this city who can’t make that choice, who will sacrifice their children to a disaster simply because they don’t know what else to do.

But I’m not going to sacrifice my son’s future on the altar of my white liberal guilt.

The city cannot afford for the schools to open so disastrously, because it cannot afford to lose all those taxpaying young parents—cannot afford to lose the taxes, yes, but also what those parents represent: Hope for the city’s future.

And the state cannot afford to let the schools fail, no matter how deep-seated the contempt for this city is in Harrisburg, because Philadelphia remains a major economic engine for the state, a place that makes the work and dreams of many smaller places possible. Some rabble-rousers will want to test that proposition. They are stupid.

Which means we’re once again nearing the last chance. Philadelphia leaders must figure out what they want to do, how they’re going to do it, and how to get everybody in the newspaper picture getting a piece of the credit.

It’s either that, or let the schools die. Watching the schools die means watching the city come tumbling soon after. The margin for error is gone.