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‘Perfect Storm’ Threatens Philadelphia Schools

by Valerie Strauss and Helen Gym

The Philadelphia public school system is in a financial and leadership crisis so severe that writer Aaron Kase said in this article on Salon.com that the district is in its “death throes.” While that may be premature, there is no question that the system is in agony, having been starved for funding by the state for years and used as a playground by school reformers who imposed one experiment after another, each which served to undermine the traditional public schools.Satellite view of a storm. (UK Met Office)

The financial problems are so deep that this summer, the appointed School Reform Commission, which has run the district since the state took it over a dozen years ago, passed a “doomsday” budget that included cuts so drastic that there was no money for schools to open this fall with funding for things such as paper, new books, athletics, arts, music, guidance counselors and more shortly after announcing the closure of a few dozen. Superintendent William Hite had said he feared schools could not open on time in September but he recently said they will, though  many schools will be suffering from a loss of personnel and services. The crisis continues.

I asked Helen Gym, a Philadelphia public school parent and activist, a few questions to explain the situation she and other citizens of the city are facing. Gym is a founder of Parents United for Public Education, a citywide parent group focused on school budgets and funding to improve achievement and accountability in the public schools. She is a former editor of The Notebook, an independent Web site about Philadelphia public schools. She is also a board member at Asian Americans United, a Chinatown-based community organization active in education, youth leadership, immigrant rights, and community development. Gym was named the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “Citizen of the Year” in 2007 for her work in education, immigration and community activism.

Here’s our e-mail conversation:

Q) An article in Slate just said that the Philadelphia public school system is in its death throes. Is that accurate?

A) I would put that statement into context. We’ve had 12 years of a state takeover that took over a “failing and broke” school district, subjected it to all kinds of reckless experimentation, and is now under leadership that seems hell-bent on starving the system into collapsing. Only a few years ago, Gov. Tom Corbett did the same thing to Chester-Upland School District just five miles south of Philadelphia. The state took over Chester-Upland, ran the system into the ground, allowed all sorts of reckless experimentation like for profit management and charters to run amok, and ultimately the district ran out of money mid-year. The state had to be taken to federal court to pay teachers’ salaries until the end of the year. So it’s not so much that Philadelphia is in its death throes. We’ve got a governor who has no qualms abdicating his responsibility to the children and families of this city  — and to the Commonwealth for that matter — and a city that is trying as hard as it can to push back.

Q) For people who don’t know what has happened, can you explain how the system has been starved and why?

A) Pennsylvania is one of three states in the nation without a funding formula [for schools based on enrollment, population or other metric]. The funding of districts is basically determined in backroom deals among party leadership, with little consideration of need or even actual enrollment. A costing-out study about eight years ago showed that an overwhelming number of school districts were underfunded as a result. Cue Governor Tom Corbett. Corbett ran on an anti-education/anti-child platform. That’s how I feel. In his first budget, he cut nearly $1 billion from education statewide, money that has largely not been restored. At the same time, he expanded controversial programs like EITC (voucher lite here in PA) and charters, particularly and most egregiously, cyber charter schools, which place enormous expense on districts. This year he zeroed out hundreds of millions of dollars in state reimbursements for charter schools as well. Corbett and his budget secretary Charles Zogby are ideologues who have no problem taking a vulnerable school system, long neglected, and using their state powers to deplete the schools of resources and redirect them towards charter and other non-public options. If our children are casualties of their political games, I don’t think they could care less.

Finally, Philadelphia has been under state takeover for 12 years now. During this time, we’ve pursued all manner of reckless experimentation on the children, staff and families of this district. We’ve burned through countless dollars chasing after the obsessions and frivolities of this so called “education reform” movement – expensive consultancies, high stakes testing, new standards and curricula, Renaissance schools. We’ve become so obsessed with the structure and management of education that we’ve completely forgotten about the substance and practice of it. This disastrous combination is what I’ve called a perfect storm around Philadelphia. No funding formula + underfunding + massive charter and non-public expansion + experimental “reform” = Philadelphia schools crisis today.

Q)  So where is the system right now? A few months ago a “doomsday” budget was passed that would force schools to open this fall without money for counselors, art, assistant principals, athletics programs, and much much more. What’s changed since then?

A) Not much has changed substantively for schools. Unfortunately, a lot has changed politically. The District last spring made a plea to the city and state that it needed $180 million to avoid the Doomsday budget scenario. The city promised to collect $28 million in back taxes and give an additional $50 million but there has been no decision about where those funds will come from as of yet. The state was asked to give $120 million toward a “rescue package” and has delivered exactly $2 million. That’s why it was so disappointing when Supt. Hite made the announcement that all he needed was $50 million to open schools. It’s so clear that $50 million is insufficient. By agreeing to open schools with such a paltry amount, he not only puts our kids and staff in harm’s way with inadequate resources but he gave cover to both city and state leadership who have refused to address structural funding problems.

Correction: Fixing number of schools closed in the spring in Philadelphia