“Sick Schools”: Philadelphia Students Deserve Better

Earlier this year, the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News published a shocking series, “Toxic City: Sick Schools.” The report revealed abysmal conditions in Philadelphia district schools: peeling lead paint, deteriorating asbestos, mold, rodent infestations, and leaking pipes and roofs. Tragically, rather than getting an education at school, many Philly students are getting sick.

While the district has known about many of these problems for years, it was only brought to the public’s attention by the newspapers’ diligent reporting. This begs the question: Why did it take outside media to bring such atrocities to light? Sadly, since most families lack access to alternate schools, the district has no incentive to be responsible or transparent.

As a result of the Inquirer and Daily News report, $7.6 million dollars was allocated from the state to fix the toxic lead paint problem in forty schools. That’s $7.6 million dollars on top of the $24,000 the Philadelphia School District already spends per student.

The district spent millions of dollars hiring contractors to eradicate the problems, but due to low levels of accountability and careless work, they often made the problems worse. Many of the projects had to be redone due to workers leaving behind asbestos and other toxic materials.

Reverting to their typical playbook, Philly lawmakers cited “inadequate funding” and called for more federal money. Unsurprisingly, the school district concurred that they deserved increased funding, despite knowing that their per-student budget already vastly exceeded both national and Pennsylvania averages.

How can more money solve systemic issues of waste and corruption? It can’t. Millions of dollars have already been spent without fixing the problems.

That’s why we should invest in students, not systems.

If Philadelphia parents had widespread access to school choice, the district wouldn’t dare allow dangerous conditions to fester in schools. Fear of losing students to safer options would force the district to maintain its facilities more efficiently and be more transparent when problems are discovered.

Expanding programs like the Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) and Opportunity Scholarship Tax Credit (OSTC) will help solve the problems facing Philadelphia public schools. Since its inception, the EITC alone has saved Pennsylvania schools over $1 billion, according to an EdChoice report. In addition to the fiscal benefits, studies have shown that school choice measures improve academic outcomes, decrease racial segregation, promote respect for others’ rights, and reduce criminal activity. Perhaps most importantly, options like tax credit scholarships would empower parents to remove their children from unsafe schools.

Each year, tens of thousands of students are denied tax credit scholarships due to arbitrary caps on the amount of credits that are available. Fortunately, there are bills in both the House (HB 2530) and Senate (SB 1204) that would ensure the EITC program keeps pace with demand. Between giving parents an alternative to district schools and saving the district thousands of dollars, expanding school choice would ensure Philadelphia students aren’t forced to attend “Sick Schools.”