Philadelphia, the place where the Declaration of Independence was signed and the Constitution was written, and the site of the oldest residential street in the United States, has become the site where the nation's drift away from its founding ideals is most acutely obvious.
A recent op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer described the situation of the city's public schools as a "slow train wreck." The district faced "a $304 million hole in the amount of money that's needed to open safe schools." A "rescue package" offered by the state was woefully inadequate. Recently, the city borrowed $50 million just to open the schools on time. And a big showdown between teachers and school administrators is expected later this month.
"This should be a big national story," the op-ed writer concluded, "arguably as big as what happened in Detroit. At the end of the day, Detroit's bankruptcy was something that happened on a piece of paper. What's happening here is real kids and real schools."
Indeed, what's happening in the City of Brotherly Love should be a national story, which is why it is important to get the narrative straight.
"A Public School System From Hell"
Writing at Salon.com, Aaron Kase explained how the state of Pennsylvania, led by its conservative governor Tom Corbett, has been intent on turning the city's school district into "a public school system from hell."
Three factors – budget cuts to the city's neighborhood schools, the city's efforts to raise property taxes to offset what schools weren’t getting from the state, and the transfer of public resources to new charter schools and online academies – have forced more well-off people to move to the suburbs and made Philadelphia "one of the poorest and most highly taxed cities in the nation."
The teachers – "who already make disproportionately less money than their suburban counterparts while teaching in much more challenging environments" – are being accused of not solving a problem they never caused. So the district administration – which was appointed by the very state that accuses the district of incompetence – has suspended automatic pay raises and told the teachers that more sacrifice is needed on their part.
Parents and students have poured into the streets to protest the situation. Kase quoted one of the parent leaders, Helen Gym, who said, “it’s indescribably insane” that a school where she sends her children has been turned into "a shell of a building” because of the willful neglect inflicted on her community.
But what's attacking Philadelphia schools is not a form of "insanity," and it is entirely "describable."
A Strategy Instead Of a Solution
As at least one clever blogger has noted, Corbett's deliberate effort to starve Philadelphia schools of necessary funds has been very coldly calculated. As was reported by the Philadelphia Citypaper back in June, a Republican firm conducting a "secret poll" found that Corbett and his education policies were deeply unpopular in the state, and his re-election prospects were in trouble.
The pollsters then argued for "an approach to the city's schools that is more political than solutions-oriented." Corbett, they maintained, should cast the current Philadelphia school crisis as "an opportunity for the governor to wedge the electorate" and "coalesce his base." The "base" in this case are not the citizens of Philadelphia – who are, after all, the people who send their children to these schools – but Pennsylvanians outside of Philadelphia who may be apt to object to seeing their taxes going to educate other people's children.
Fomenting and then tapping into people's animosity toward spending money on other people's children – especially when those children are impoverished and don’t have the same skin color – is not something exclusive to the Corbett campaign nor confined to Pennsylvania.
"Screwing" Our Schools
The strategy behind starving Philadelphia's schools had been established some time ago.
As Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker explained on his blog, Pennsylvania is an exemplar of "how states harm local public school districts" with willful intention and impunity.
First, "the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has among the least equitable state school finance systems in the country," giving less state and local revenue to the state’s highest needs schools – including Philadelphia and other “screwed,” in Baker's wording, city districts such as Reading and Allentown.
Adding to the unfair base funding, the state also distributes special education funds to schools without regard to need and requires traditional public schools to pay "special education tuition to charter schools" in a manner that "is poorly conceived, creates perverse incentives for charter school operators, and inappropriately drains disproportionate resources from sending districts."
This pattern of providing less money to schools that need it the most is “historic," explained Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, in the pages of Education Week.
“The state, for decades," Casserly continued, "has not adequately supported Philadelphia or its schoolchildren.
“The crisis is not related just to an economy that’s gone sour in the last few years,” he said. “It’s related to a longer historical lack of support.”
Not Just A Philadelphia Story
What's most troubling about this Philadelphia story is that the plot line is being repeated throughout the country.
In Chicago, another community with lots of minority school children from low-income families, unfair funding practices from the state of Illinois (another of Baker's "least-fair states") have systematically damaged the city's schools. The state's unwillingness to provide adequate money to pay for educating "other people's children" is having profound effects on Chicago's ability to provide students with opportunities to learn.
Principals, straining for lack of funds, struggle with deciding how to fire teachers, while doing the least amount of damage, and how to choose between hiring a music teacher, a drama teacher, or a teacher of visual arts because they have enough funds for just one of those.
According to the Chicago Teachers' Union, the 19 percent workforce reduction forced onto the district translated into 1,700 lost teacher positions. Most hard-hit were teachers of visual or performing arts and music, gym teachers and librarians, teachers of foreign languages, computer teachers, and staffing for special education students and students who have trouble with the English language.
School libraries, few that there are, are being forced to share space with the general public. And just this week, the city demolished a prized community center to make way for a new athletic field to be used by a private high school.
Despite these cuts and the calls for budget constraint, the city continues to find money to open more charter schools that result in transferring even more public funds to private coffers. Chicago blogger Mike Klonsky couldn't help but note, "Even while some 30,000 students, most in African-American communities, were being targeted for ejection from their so-called 'underutilized' schools, and even while neighborhood schools were facing draconian budget cuts, the plans were already being laid to open dozens of new privately-run, non-union schools… many will be put in the very same neighborhood as closed schools."
The Problem Of Educating Other People's Children
One would think an education crisis in Philadelphia – a city so central to the founding of our country – would awaken Americans' devotion to public education that has long been so central to the American Dream. Indeed, many of the signatories to those famous documents drafted in Philadelphia spoke passionately of the need to educate Americans in a system that is open and free to all the public.
But here's what's preventing America from doing what's right for Philadelphia's children and all children around the country. As a recent survey of public attitudes about public schools found, public education in America is diverging into a tale of two systems.
An article in The Huffington Post looked into the survey results and found, "Minority and low-income parents are more likely to see serious problems in their schools – from low expectations to bullying to out-of-date technology and textbooks – than those who are affluent or white."
The "overall impressions" parents have about their local schools may be positive, but "deep demographic differences" characterized by income, education, and race influence whether parents see "per-student spending, the quality of school buildings and the availability of support resources as important drivers of school quality."
According to the survey, parents from households making more than $100,000 are less worried about their schools than are the parents of households earning less than $50,000 a year.
And why wouldn't they be? Their schools are doing fine! But what wily politicians in Pennsylvania, Illinois, and elsewhere are doing is transforming this willful ignorance of the conditions of other people's children into resentment over addressing those conditions.
The actions of these politicians – Pennsylvania's governor Corbett, Chicago's mayor Rahm Emanuel, and others – are about as un-American as you can get.
Over the next two weeks, our nation will be commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, that transcendent moment when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech. As we approach that day – August 28 – Americans everywhere should pause to remember that King called the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence "a promissory note" that our country has all too often "defaulted on," especially as it applies to the rights of poor, minority children.
Kings dream was for "little black boys and black girls" to be able to "join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers." Look into the faces of school children in Philadelphia, Chicago, and elsewhere, and promise them the nation will not default on our promise again. And the dream King wanted will stay alive.