Things have reached a fever pitch in Philadelphia as the city’s school district—the eighth-largest in America—is scrambling to close its $300 million deficit and open schools on time. As protestors close in on City Hall and the clock runs down on the start of a new school year, it’s worth looking at what’s really behind the school funding crisis in Philadelphia.
1. Philadelphia’s violent, failing schools are the real crisis, not funding. We’ve pointed out for years that the real problem in Philadelphia is how district schools are failing students and families. Philadelphia spends $14,000 per student, right at the state average. But despite that, students perform poorly. Whether you look at state tests or national benchmarks, only 20 to 30 percent of Philadelphia students can read or do math at grade level. What’s tragically worse is the danger and violence students suffer on a daily basis: In 2011-12 alone, district schools saw 2,310 assaults on students and staff, 15 rapes, 166 indecent assaults, 86 robberies, 157 thefts and 566 weapons possessions.
2. Emergency funding won’t fix the spending problem. In fact, the gap is going to get worse. Despite the focus on getting $50 million in emergency funding from the state, and the layoffs of 3,800 teachers and school workers (some of whom are being rehired), Philadelphia’s pension costs alone are set to exceed this year’s $300 million budget gap by 2020. Simply raising taxes and pouring money into Philadelphia schools won’t fix this long-term crisis brought on by failed policies.
3. School union leaders are driving the crisis. Everyone agrees that good teachers deserve to be paid adequately, but the demands of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) have been unreasonable for years. In a district with struggling students and chronic money woes, the PFT’s last contract was padded with unnecessary perks. The year 2010-11 alone saw $2.6 million for a legal services fund that covered employees’ personal needs such as preparing a will or buying a home; $15.3 million in severance pay; and virtually free health care for employees (that cost the district $165 million—with an extra $66 million for vision, prescription and dental benefits).
Now PFT union leaders are refusing to make financial concessions—regardless of the impact on students—even as their contract is due to expire Aug. 31. They are also worsening the crisis by fighting the school district’s suspension of seniority rules. But such rules simply protect longstanding teachers without regard for whether they’re the best educators.
4. Charter schools are rescuing students. With the inflexible and expensive teachers’ contract, the school district has been hard-pressed to focus its spending better on students, or even downsize as it should given falling enrollment. Unsurprisingly, desperate families want out of Philadelphia’s violent, failing schools and are flocking to charter schools. In the last five years alone, enrollment in district schools has dropped 17 percent, while charter enrollment has nearly doubled.
5. Families need more school choice. The explosion in charter schools shows that parents want out of persistently failing public schools. Expanding charter school options, as well as tax credit scholarships, throws an immediate lifeline to students while forcing the school district to spend more effectively and improve its standards—a trend that has improved schools in other major cities. That’s the silver lining in the Philadelphia schools crisis: Kids may finally get the education they deserve.