Philadelphia’s School Crisis: A City On The Brink

Unless we fix the schools, Philly is doomed. But what can be done when the city’s leadership class lacks the will to face the problem head-on? Here are eight changes we need to demand right now—before it’s too late.

Photography by Clint Blowers

Photograph by Clint Blowers

My family and I moved out of Philadelphia last year. We did so reluctantly, and with a crippling heaping of guilt.

It wasn’t the crime, or the taxes, or the grit. No, we left for the same reason that untold thousands have decamped for the suburbs before us: the crummy state of the city’s public schools, a chronic and seemingly immutable fact of life in Philadelphia.

The failings go way beyond the typical struggles of a big urban district. In December, the latest national assessment found that just 14 percent of Philadelphia fourth-graders were proficient or better at reading, compared to 26 percent in other big cities and 34 percent nationally. Of the 25 largest U.S. cities, Philadelphia ranks 22nd in college degree attainment. Graduates of the School District of Philadelphia are particularly bad off; only about 10 percent of district alums go on to get degrees.

Still, it wasn’t the statistics that drove us away. It was the deflating sense that there was no clear and affordable path for our two young kids to get the education they need—particularly our son, who has some special needs. Despite our love for the city, our belief that Philadelphia is genuinely on the rise, and endless conversations in which we tried to rationalize staying, my wife and I decided we had to leave. The day the moving van arrived, I didn’t feel angry so much as I felt ashamed. That embarrassment is, I think, not entirely uncommon. And it’s a sign that the failings of the city’s schools are damaging Philadelphia even more than in the past.

The stakes are higher now for two reasons.

Education remains the single best lever the city has to break the back of generational poverty, just as it has always been. But the consequences of substandard educations for low-income students are growing ever more grave in an economy where factory jobs and decent pay for unskilled work are all but extinct.

And there is now another group of Philadelphians being ill-served by city schools: the educated 20- and 30-somethings who’ve flocked to the city and done so much to energize it. Unlike other generations, many of these parents very much want to raise their children here. And while the most committed are organizing and fund-raising to improve conditions in lower-performing schools, others consider the sacrifice too great. Many still leave, loading into their moving vans large chunks of Philadelphia’s already meager tax base—and much hope for the city’s future.

When the whole of Philadelphia was in decline, low-quality schools were part of a bleak panorama of urban misery, just one more failed institution in a patchwork of violence and blight and poverty. But now—with the city growing, with the murder rate plummeting, with eds and meds booming—the schools stand out as probably the single biggest obstacle to further redevelopment and recovery. At best, underperforming schools will sabotage and slow Philadelphia’s tenuous resurgence. At worst, the school system could stop Philadelphia’s revival in its tracks, or even hurl the city back toward the abyss.

So what are our leaders doing about it? Not nearly enough. In fact, in the past two years, a problem that festered for decades has been allowed to devolve into a full-fledged crisis, with hundreds of millions of dollars stripped from the district’s budget, a revolving door of chairmen at the School Reform Commission, and a test-score cheating scandal thats ensnared a staggering 138 educators. Mayor Nutter and City Council dither over differences in how best to send the district some spare change. The Corbett administration’s education agenda is MIA, and Philadelphia’s Harrisburg delegation is riven by political rivalries and rendered impotent and irrelevant by ideological inflexibility and a lack of political heavy hitters. Meanwhile, the public debate—between reformers, activists, parents and teachers—has grown increasingly toxic and intransigent.

All this, while the district burns.

What’s needed is action—bold steps rooted not in ideology, but in the reality of what’s broken and what might fix it.

Over the past couple of months, I’ve spent numerous hours talking to people deeply involved in Philadelphia’s schools—administrators, reformers, principals, teachers, politicians—asking them what needs to happen to turn the schools in the right direction, and what concrete steps we can take right now to move past the current stalemate.

I learned two things. First, there is no miracle cure for urban education. There is no savior superintendent out there with all the answers and a genie bottle, no evidence that showering the schools with money yields amazing returns, no proof that charters are a panacea for a district like Philadelphia’s. This will take time. It will require persistence, investment and—unavoidably—real sacrifice.

But I also learned that city schools are indisputably capable not just of improvement, but of excellence. The proof is all around us. Even in these difficult times, there are schools that are defying their demographic destinies and preparing low-income kids for college; schools that are building meaningful connections with the parents and communities they serve; schools that are reinventing how school works altogether.

We need an approach that creates the freedom and opportunity for more schools to thrive, regardless of whether they’re charter or district-run. That requires massive change: cultural, contractual, financial and more. And it requires action. Here are the steps we, as the public, should demand to see, and the people who need to make that change happen.