Schools Open In Philadelphia, But Crisis Drags On

Superintendent William Hite opened school in Philadelphia on September 8—based, it seems, on hope and a prayer.  It can’t be said that he could really even count on the good faith of the Pennsylvania general assembly, whose members went home for their late summer break without even passing enabling legislation for the local school district to levy a $2-per-pack cigarette tax to help close what remains an $81 million budget deficit.

The state legislature returned to Harrisburg yesterday, September 15, and, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, the House is expected to vote this week on the proposed legislation to permit the local cigarette tax.  Assuming House passage, the bill will then move to the state senate.

It is astounding that the financial morass created by the state of Pennsylvania for one of our nation’s largest school districts—and one that has been under state control since 2001—is not really being addressed.  William Green, chairman of the state’s own appointed School Reform Commission that functions like a school board, has been standing with Superintendent Hite in protest of the state’s policies, but to no avail.

When Hite announced on August 15 that the school district would gamble on future legislative action come mid-September, he did so, according to Education Week‘s “District Dossier” blog, by making cuts to programs that include: elimination of high school transportation for students within two miles of school, reduced services for 300 students pursuing multiple pathway to graduation, elimination of staff development for teachers even at schools facing severe challenges, cuts to cleaning and repairs in school buildings, elimination of 34 school police, and $800,000 in administrative cuts.  This is on top of the layoffs of thousands of teachers over the past two years and the closure of 24 school buildings in the spring of 2013. The Philadelphia Public School Notebook reports that Superintendent Hite intends the cuts he made in August to save $32 million; he hopes to restore some of these services if the cigarette tax can be enacted.

No one really knows how much the proposed cigarette tax would generate. The Notebook reports the cigarette tax is projected to provide $49 million this school year; according to Education Week’s “District Dossier,” “the cigarette tax is expected to generate between $38 million and $60 million.”  School finance experts would warn about counting on sin taxes for for a major percentage of a school district’s revenue stream, as well as imposing the least progressive kind of tax there is.  Of course, Philadelphia has little choice, as the state of Pennsylvania has reneged on its responsibility to support the schools adequately.

The Education Law Center reported last Friday that on September 9, in response to the years’ long financial crisis, Parents United for Public Education—a Philadelphia parent and community advocacy organization—filed a lawsuit to force the state’s Education Secretary “to investigate hundreds of parent complaints of massive deficiencies in city schools.”  Parents United for Public Education has been collecting filings of complaints by parents.  So far 825 formal complaints have documented dire school conditions which state law requires the Pennsylvania Department of Education to investigate.  “Problems alleged by parents include alarming levels of overcrowding such that teachers can no longer walk between desks to interact with individual students, increasingly limited curricular offerings, a distressing and dangerous lack of counselors and school nurses, and squalid and insufficient toilet facilities.”

An attorney for the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia is quoted in the Education Law Center’s report: “Secretary Dumaresq must know that responding to parents’ pleas with form letters and silence not only violates the trust of parents, but is also a clear violation of her department’s legal duties.”

For more detailed history of the ongoing crisis in the School District of Philadelphia, see previous coverage by this blog  here, here, and here.