Philly schools borrow just to begin on time

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It is a specific case that speaks to the problems facing urban school districts across the nation.  Some of it is by design, and the rest is part of the realities of life in the big city.  Welcome to the future of public education in America.

This decision by the city to borrow $50 million comes in the wake of a more than $304 million budget shortfall for the city schools.

In the doomsday budget it approved, the district laid off 3,783 employees—19 percent of the school workforce—including teachers, aides, support staff and all of the assistant principals, and closed 24 schools.  Think of all of the music, art, libraries and athletic programs that will fall by the wayside.

Meanwhile, the shortfall is the result of $1 billion in cuts to state education by Gov. Tom Corbett—a darling of the Tea Party—and conservatives who control the state legislature.  One-third of the cuts targeted Philadelphia’s predominantly black and brown school system, a move which certainly pleased Corbett’s supporters, particularly in the middle region between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that James Carville once called Alabama.

So, in the name of recession-time austerity, Pennsylvania Republicans made massive cuts to education and crucial social services, while granting potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate tax breaks over the coming years.  Not surprisingly, children who are black, poor and English learners are disproportionately impacted by the draconian budget cuts. There’s no money for investment in our children to help them succeed, yet the state found $400 million to build a brand spanking new prison near the city—presumably to lock up the children these failing schools produce.

Yet, the state has only agreed to $45 million of the $180 million in emergency aid—$120 million from the state and $60 million from the city of Philadelphia— the schools have requested in order to close the gap.  The teachers union, whose members make 10% less than their suburban counterparts, is expected to agree to $133 million in concessions.

The Philadelphia school district, unlike its counterparts elsewhere, does not have a school board that is held accountable to the voters.  The School Reform Commission is state appointed.  And yet, much of the gutting of education in the City of Brotherly Love is a familiar story that is being repeated elsewhere.

Philadelphia suffers from years of a dwindling tax base resulting from suburban flight.  Although the city is on the upswing with people returning to live in there, Philly remains the poorest of the large U.S. cities, with a dramatic 28% poverty rate—39% among children.  Further, the city maintains the highest rate of deep poverty at 12.9 percent, which includes people below half the poverty line.  That poses a problem when the school funding scheme is dictated by property taxes, and impoverished communities do not pay property taxes.

And high poverty and poor schools creates a school-to-prison pipeline.  While Philadelphia accounts for a mere 12 percent of the state population, it supplies more than one quarter of the state’s prisoners.  In turn, over 60 percent of the prisoners in Pennsylvania prisons are inmates of color, in a state that is nearly 84% white.

Penelope Giles, executive director of the Francisville Neighborhood Development Corp., says that the property tax system of funding public education creates economic segregation.  And economic segregation, in her view, is responsible for the problems facing Philadelphia communities, including violence and bad schools.  Giles, whose traditionally black and Latino neighborhood of Francisville has become a hot commodity in the gentrification boom, cannot understand why we allow this system to continue unabated.

“Can we achieve economic diversity and restore the health and vibrancy of our neighborhood? . . . That’s a no-brainer, we damn well better or find ourselves transplanted to another economically segregated community rife with the same deplorable conditions because guess what, change is coming whether we like it or not . . . ,” Giles wrote recently in an open letter.

“[W]e can stop saying, ‘They’re pushing us out, they’re pushing us out,’ and realize that we, the poor people in this neighborhood, have a voice, we have a vote, and we can demand that the politicians put laws into place so that as our neighborhood improves, we are able to stay here.”

However, many politicians on both side of the political aisle are listening to the corporate-financed education reform movement, which is bankrolled by wealthy venture capitalists, hedge funds and other elites who typically are white and not serving the interests of black communities.  The language is green, and the result is exploitation.

The push for school reform provides cover for those who would hollow out the public schools.  Reform advocates want school privatization, union-busting, and a gutting of the public schools that serve black, brown and poor children by transferring taxpayer money via charter schools and vouchers.  Charter schools, which cost the school system a $7,000 net loss per pupil and threaten to cannibalize the public system, account for one-third of Philadelphia’s 200,000 public school children, up from one-sixth in 2008.

Education reform groups are influential, and are shaping education policy in Philadelphia and around the country.  For example, the conservative, pro-voucher Philadelphia School Partnership (PSP) supported the school closings and funded a study criticizing the teachers’ current contract.  PSP created the reform group PennCAN, which lobbied Corbett to capitalize on the school crisis by attacking the teachers’ union for political purposes.  PennCAN funded a secret poll conducted by Republicans, which found that the governor stood to gain by attacking the Philly teachers union, and deflecting attention from his unpopular education policies in order to improve his poll numbers and reelection prospects.  Mayor Michael Nutter’s administration works closely with PSP and Gates Foundation reform initiatives.  StudentsFirst, the organization founded by former Washington, D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, has conducted opinion polls in Pennsylvania and other states.

Meanwhile, the implosion of the Philadelphia public schools provides a cautionary tale.  This is a city that has to borrow money just to keep an empty shell of a school system open, while those who are helping to bring it down are making a buck in the process.  And some school officials are urging parents to donate money—to the public schools.  At their worst, public education is becoming a testing factory for low income and working class children, and a holding pen for the state pen—not just in Philly but throughout America’s urban centers.

Perhaps parents will have to take it to the Philly streets and protest in order to get their children the education they deserve.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove