After months of legislative dithering, both houses of the Pennsylvania legislature finally passed and Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett signed into law enabling legislation for the School District of Philadelphia to levy a sin tax on its residents to raise money for the public schools. The school district can levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to try to make up at least a bit for what the state has cut in recent years. Of course, because car owners can drive to the suburbs or Delaware to purchase cigarettes, the poorest of the poor who do not own automobiles will pay the tax, which may not even come close to raising the revenue needed to run the school district.
In a scathing and prophetic September 29th editorial, the Philadelphia Public School Notebook commented on all this: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing.” The Notebook blames the state for a wave of devastating cuts to education that has washed across many school districts in addition to Philadelphia: “More than one-fourth of districts were expected to cut extracurricular activities this year…. Allentown’s school district axed more than 60 teaching positions—on top of more than 400 cut in the three prior years… A district near Scranton announced it can no longer afford music instruction…. Something is seriously wrong with this picture. Pennsylvania is not a poor state and is situated in one of the richest countries in the world. But many districts can’t provide our children with school personnel we once took for granted.”
The reasons are complex. Corbett and the legislature have cut state funding—a reduction of $1,300-per-pupil to Philadelphia in 2011 alone. The state dismantled its school funding distribution formula. “Harrisburg has been committed to preserving corporate tax breaks…” and “Corbett and the legislature have also diverted millions of public dollars to private schools through tax credits and maintained a sweetheart deal for funding cyber charters, many of which are run for profit.” Like other states Pennsylvania relies on local property taxes to fund schools: “So even within the same county there are often obscene inequities in resources—Radnor Township raises $9,000 more per pupil than nearby Upper Darby.”
Amplifying the history behind such an editorial, this week The Nation magazine has published a fascinating and detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia. Daniel Denvir has, for several years now, covered the Philadelphia schools for the Philadelphia City Paper. His new piece in The Nation is: How to Destroy a Public-School System, part of an October 13 special issue of the magazine on public education.
Denvir begins with the story of parents organizing last spring to prevent the charter school takeover of their neighborhood Steel Elementary School by the no-excuses Mastery Charter Schools. After Parents United for Public Education, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and Concerned Neighbors of Nicetown organized to block the charter takeover, the parents at Steel eventually voted 121-55 to keep Steel a public school—and the parents’ vote was narrowly accepted by those running the district. The organizing effort was, according to Denvir, “among the few successful coordinated efforts by parents and teachers to block charter expansion in Philadelphia. They constituted a pivotal moment in a struggle involving Corbett, well-funded education reformers bent on privatizing public schools, a battered teachers union, and students and parents attempting to navigate a school system in which fiscal crisis has become the only constant.”
Denvir traces the crisis back to the 1950s, when the mayor, Richardson Dilworth said Philadelphia was being “choked by the ‘white noose’ of the suburbs.” Denvir remembers school superintendent David Hornbeck’s filing of a civil rights lawsuit in 1998 that alleged “state funding discriminated against nonwhite students.” The legislature responded in 2001 with a state takeover of the district, barred the teachers union in Philadelphia from striking, and turned the district over to Edison Schools, a private educational management company—an experiment Denvir reports was recognized as a failure by 2007. Then in 2010 came Governor Corbett, “his political network heavily populated by advocates for private-sector education reform… Corbett cut about $860 million from public education in his first budget…. He also expanded Pennsylvania’s ‘voucher lite’ programs, popular among conservatives, which provide corporations with major tax credits in exchange for donations for private-school tuition.” Corbett cut more in subsequent budgets, telling legislators, “I am here to say that education cannot be the only industry exempt from recession.” Funding from the William Penn Foundation brought in the Boston Consulting Group to issue a report that “called for closing sixty-four schools, gutting the central office staff, privatizing blue-collar jobs… and carving up the remaining schools into ‘achievement networks’ potentially managed by private third parties.” Eventually in the spring of 2013, the number of schools closed was reduced to twenty-four—still a significant loss of neighborhood schools, and the expansion of charters has continued.
Denvir brings his history to last school year: “In 2013-14, the School District of Philadelphia had 6,321 fewer staff than it did at the end of 2011, according to district figures—a decrease of nearly 27 percent. The reduction included 2,723 fewer teachers, fifty-eight nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noon-time aides. The year began with a single counselor assigned to nearly 3,000 students…” In the summer of 2014, the crisis continued: “In June, Philadelphia’s schools confronted yet another budget crisis. In response, Corbett and Mike Turzai, the Republican majority leader in the State House of Representatives, demanded that the city’s legislative delegation vote to weaken public-employee pensions. The prize in return? Simply allowing the city to raise raise its cigarette tax in order to boost school funding.”
We have come full circle to the diagnosis offered this week by the editors of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook: “It’s hard to overstate the deplorable conditions facing Philadelphia school children again this fall: another year of bare-bones education, overcrowded classrooms, and gaps in essential services like counseling and nursing… Something is seriously wrong with this picture.”