Public education for more than 130,000 Philadelphia children is at stake, as the state legislature remains mired in a stalemate over the long-overdue budget.
In a letter sent to staff Tuesday night, Philadelphia School District Superintendent William Hite warned that after January 29, 2016, "our ability to keep schools open, issue paychecks and pay bills is uncertain. The prospect of running out of operating funds is dire."
Nearly five and a half months have passed since the state's July 1 budget deadline. Speaking of how the impasse has impacted schools, teachers, and students, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers president Jerry Jordan said in a statement Wednesday: "Harrisburg's budget showdown has grown from a quagmire, to a crisis, to a full-scale emergency."
"Our school district, like many others, finds itself on the brink of a shutdown because legislators have put partisan ideology ahead of educating its citizens," Jordan charged. "This is a dereliction of duty that has jeopardized the futures of our schoolchildren."
On Thursday, news outlets reported that state House Republican leaders had put a 24-hour deadline on a new push to support the $30.8 billion spending plan touted by Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Senate.
But education advocates warn that even if a budget finally passes, Philadelphia kids might still pay the price.
Not only has the Republican-controlled legislature "crafted a budget that falls well short of restoring the Corbett-era funding cuts," Jordan continued—referring to former Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican who was replaced last fall by Democrat Tom Wolf— but "their budget is tied to proposed changes to the school code that would destroy public education in Philadelphia."
That so-called "school code bill," passed last week, was seen as "a necessary tradeoff in order to secure the roughly $100 million funding boost that would come to city schools as part of the budget framework agreed to by...Wolf and Republican legislative leaders," according to WHYY News.
The advocacy organization Education Voters of Pennsylvania described the bill as "a state takeover and charter school conversion model that is only for Philadelphia."
As explained by local education activist Steven Singer, the school code legislation would "require the Commonwealth to pick as many as 5 'underperforming' Philadelphia schools a year to close, charterize or just fire the principal and half the staff. It would also allow non-medically trained personnel to take an on-line course before working in the district to treat diabetic school children. And it would—of course—open the floodgates to more charter schools!"
Already, Pennsylvania's charter-school population of 60,000 is the nation's third highest, and that number represents about 30 percent of its public school students.
What's more, a coalition of parents, school districts, and statewide associations sued the commonwealth earlier this year for effectively implementing what one critic called "an educational caste system."
The school code measure only exacerbates these issues, Singer said, denouncing the bill as "classist, racist bullshit...full of unsubstantiated facts, faulty logic, and corporate education reform kickbacks."
"Is this really the only way to reach some kind of normalcy for the rest of the state?" he wrote. "Do we really need to bleed Philadelphia some more before we can heal the self-inflicted wounds caused by our conservative legislators?"