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.

Step 7

Cut deals and take tough votes to end the fiscal insanity—or declare bankruptcy.

The district’s fiscal crisis isn’t a bluff. It’s not a ploy by cushy union interests and entrenched bureaucrats to wring still more money from taxpayers outside the city. The present cash shortage is entirely real, and though it’s partly a product of past mismanagement, it’s also a direct consequence of sharp and sudden state and federal funding cuts.

That doesn’t change the fact that getting significantly more money for the schools is a politically wretched proposition. But there are concrete steps Philadelphia’s leaders can and should take to—perhaps—win adequate funding for the district.

The revelation in mid-January that Governor Corbett will call for more education funding in this year’s state budget is obviously a good sign. The governor is vulnerable on education, and he knows it. But the $200 million he reportedly proposes investing statewide isn’t nearly enough, and Philadelphia politicians must press for much more.

But to have a puncher’s chance, city pols must cease the incessant squabbling and carefully cultivate allies in the ’burbs and other impoverished districts, which have their own problems with the state’s inadequate funding of education. And so long as Corbett is governor, city Democrats must be willing to put schoolkids ahead of their other constituencies. Strike a deal to privatize liquor stores, as Corbett wants, if it means more recurring revenue. Cross the public employee unions on state pension reform if it gets the district off life support.

In exchange, the district and its political allies should be looking for 1) More money, to the tune of about $300 million a year. 2) A coherent and predictable funding formula for schools, instead of the backroom bullshit that passes for a formula today. 3) Relief from teacher pension obligations, which are crippling districts across the state and are entirely controlled at the state level.

None of this is unreasonable. The $300 million is actually significantly less than what the state would have owed city schools had Corbett kept investing in education at the pace set by governors Rendell and Schweiker. And the state should be making that investment, not just in Philadelphia, but across the Commonwealth. The state’s share of financial support for K-12 education ranks 10th from the bottom in the nation.

City Council and Mayor Nutter should secure more local funding for the schools, too­—about $87.5 million per year. “With very few exceptions, good schools exist where local taxpayers have taken ownership of those schools,” says Mark Gleason.

Voters also have a role here. Ph­iladelphia­n­s—and anyone else who believes quality education for city kids is in the best interest of the state—ought to demand that Democratic candidates for governor make urban education a focal point of their campaigns. And unless Corbett changes course dramatically on education funding, city and suburban voters who value Philadelphia schools should turn out in large numbers to see him defeated.

If all of this fails—if city politicians lack the competence and the courage, if the opposition of GOP legislators can’t be overcome through conventional political means—then Hite and the SRC should either declare the district bankrupt or refuse to open schools next fall. Both options are legally fraught and desperate courses of action.

So, what good might actually come of investing cash back to the district? To start with, a restoration of the basics that suburban parents take for granted: school counselors, aides to keep an eye on kids at lunch and in the hallways, perhaps even some reopened school libraries. Just as important, establishing a semblance of fiscal stability would give Hite an actual chance to craft a coherent strategy. It would give the district a better shot at recruiting and keeping the best teachers and principals. And it would give parents like myself the confidence, just maybe, to stick it out.

Step 8

Do as I say, not as I did.

There is one final way to dramatically improve city schools over time. All it requires is that middle- and upper-middle-class parents like me actually stick it out in Philadelphia, and send our kids to the now-struggling city schools instead of opting for private options or moving to the ’burbs.

Most research suggests that economic and racial integration of city classrooms can have profoundly positive effects on overall classroom performance, including that of low-income kids, for a lot of different reasons. Luring quality teachers is an easier sell at economically integrated schools. Staunch middle-class buy-in to the local school district makes elected officials wary of underfunding the schools. And a lower concentration of extreme poverty helps address all kinds of poverty-associated problems, such as school violence and learning disabilities.

Busing is in the past. But gentrification is alive and well in big cities across the country, and it has become an increasingly potent integrating force in Philadelphia. The highest performing elementary schools in the city are also the most economically integrated: Penn Alexander in West Philly; Meredith and McCall in Society Hill; Greenberg in Northeast Philly; and so on. Students at these diverse schools are, as a group, nowhere near as privileged as kids from Tredyffrin or Cherry Hill, but they match or exceed the performance at most suburban schools.

While gentrification comes with its own set of problems, economically integrating more schools would be good for the district, good for teachers and good for students. For that to happen, more parents with the means to send their kids elsewhere need to make a leap of faith. I balked, and that decision gnaws at my conscience.