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Unstable District funding puts city’s growth at risk

In neighborhoods across Philadelphia, schools’ budget woes have people thinking about other options.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Ian Petrie is not too worried about his daughter’s school – yet.

“She’s having a great year – the art teacher she loves is back, there’s music instruction,” he said. “The school seems to be weathering the circumstances.”

But ask him how strong West Philadelphia’s Lea Elementary will be a few years from now, when his young son is ready to start, and he’s not quite so confident.

“That is not because of the staff,” Petrie said. “I have great confidence in the people that work in this building. That’s because of the District, that’s because of Harrisburg.”

Petrie says he’s encouraged by the volunteer efforts and community partnerships underway at Lea. But he’s “gobsmacked” by the staff cuts and other privations that have come with the current “doomsday” budget.

“It is completely unacceptable that that is the new baseline,” said Petrie, who teaches and does administrative work at the University of Pennsylvania. “I want a nurse. I want a librarian. I want a guidance counselor. These are the things that every school should have.”

Miles away in Kensington, Daniel Ofori, a father of two from Ghana who works as a security guard, says the same thing as he stands in front of Sheridan Elementary.

“All the teachers here are good teachers,” he said. “But the government is not funding them to where they can teach to the standard of world competition. It really makes me sad. You can’t build on a foundation of sand.”

Petrie and Ofori represent two faces of Philadelphia’s economic development challenge. On one hand, the city is home to a growing number of young professionals who have choices about where to live and educate their children. Keeping them and their tax dollars in town is seen as essential to both the health of the District and the city itself.

On the other, Philadelphia is also home to a large number of low-income and working class families, including a growing population of immigrants, whose school choices are more limited than those of someone like Petrie, but whose children’s success is no less important to the city’s economic future.

Paul Levy, head of the Center City District, who calls the District’s ongoing budget travails “unsettling” and “disruptive,” says both groups deserve equal attention.

“The city cannot thrive unless all children have access to quality education,” he said, “particularly … families of limited means who want their children to be prepared for an economy which needs an ever larger number of educated workers.”

At the same time, he said, public schools must appeal to those “who have the means to leave, but have chosen to stay.”

Lori Shorr, the head of the mayor’s office of education, says the city is “acutely aware” of the economic importance of having a school system that appeals to young adults, who now make up a quarter of the city’s population.

But the annual political roller coaster that makes budgets so volatile also makes public schools a hard sell, Shorr says.

“Young families need to know that there’s a predictability,” she said. “They’re not going to put their heart and soul into a local school only to find out that on some whim they have to pull [their children] out, or find someplace else.”

Christine Carlson of the Greater Center City Neighborhood Schools Coalition thinks Shorr is right to worry. The parents of today’s 4- and 5-year-olds are more likely than ever to be looking for other options, she said: charters, private schools, and even other districts.

“We’ve already lost next year’s class, who would have come in, who maybe were really seriously considering the public schools,” said Carlson, whose two children attend Greenfield Elementary. “It’s hard to blame them, because they’re not invested in the system yet. You have all this instability and upheaval.”

And when parents with choices don’t choose public schools, Carlson said, that hurts students of all economic backgrounds.

Families with means are “raising money, they’re contributing time – resources that are benefiting every kid in the school.”

An economic asset

Everyone from grassroots community groups to the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce acknowledges that the District plays a central role in the region’s long-term economic well-being.

And when schools don’t do well, it hurts, even when other trends are positive.

“As long as there are stories about Philadelphia schools that use the adjective ‘troubled’ or ‘controversial,’ as long as that’s part of the city’s brand, that’s not a good thing,” said David Thornburgh, director of Penn’s Fels School of Government.

Most concretely, school quality has a well-established impact on property values. Home prices in West Philadelphia’s Penn Alexander catchment famously ballooned once the school’s partnership with the University of Pennsylvania was established, rising three times as fast as the city average.

But even more modest school improvements can make a difference. A 2009 study by The Reinvestment Fund found a direct link between home prices and school quality. A 10-point advantage in PSSA scores could boost the value of a typical Philadelphia rowhouse over comparable homes by 5 percent, TRF reported.

Less simple to measure but no less important is the District’s role developing the city’s workforce. Unemployment here, at over 10 percent, is well above the national average, and half the households in the city earn less than $35,000 a year. But jobs in the most promising sectors tend to require college educations.

“We have far too many unskilled laborers for how many unskilled jobs we have,” said Shorr.

Josh McNeil, head of the civic group Young Involved Philadelphia, said that school quality is a growing concern for his peers – many of whom are teachers or know people who have been personally affected by layoffs and budget cuts.

The city’s affordability and strong neighborhoods are a draw to people who want to put down roots, he said. And while troubled schools are nothing new, “the sense of crisis has really spiked in the last year,” McNeil said. “The uncertainty has put worries about the school system at the front of people’s minds.”

That may not spark an immediate, visible exodus, he said, but could well end up hurting the city 10 years down the road. “There’s the people who may not move here. There’s the ones who may move away,” he said. “There’s risk on all fronts.”

Carlson sees two “conflicting forces” at work.

“One is obviously the instability of the system itself and not knowing what to expect from it. Number two, you have young families who want to stay in the city, who are looking at public schools and saying, ‘We’re going to make them work.’

“Which one is going to win out? I don’t know right now,” she said. “I’m hoping that the people who want to stay will outweigh the instability.”

A bigger pie, fairly divided

The solution, Shorr says, is two-pronged: The state needs to spend more on basic education, and also embrace a funding formula that ends the annual cycle of politicized fiscal brinksmanship.

“You find out [the budget] at the end of June for a fiscal year that starts the next week,” she said. “You can’t run things that way.”

The idea of a funding formula is widely supported, even among organizations that differ on exactly how money should be spent. Such groups as the Philadelphia School Partnership, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, Public Citizens for Children and Youth and the Education Law Center have all lined up behind the notion.

Shorr’s office meets weekly with funding formula supporters and hopes to muster a regional coalition of voters and employers to make the point in Harrisburg that troubled schools hurt everyone’s bottom line.

Thornburgh says that anything that brought the promise of some multiyear stability could only help.

“If we had a superintendent that stayed for five or 10 years, and could say, ‘There’s a plan, and we’re sticking with the plan,’ that alone would be a hugely positive step,” he said.

Choices, choices

In the meantime, Shorr says that if the District’s schools can’t provide confidence, hopefully others will. “We have such a large parochial system, and add to that the huge charter system we have. So parents have a lot of choices,” Shorr said.

Still, she added, “not all parents have a lot of great choices – and that’s the problem.”

Some parents have made new choices already. District officials are still trying to locate 4,000 students who were expected to enroll this year but did not; how many are in charters, private or parochial schools, or out of the city entirely is unclear.

Ofori, for whom private school is impossible, says charters aren’t necessarily any more appealing than District schools, since they too suffer when funding drops.

“All the schools could be good – if the politicians fund them,” said Ofori, who says he is seriously considering a return to Ghana, in part because of his frustration with his children’s education.

Petrie, on the other hand, plans to continue supporting Lea’s volunteer efforts and doing what he can to boost the schools’ prospects.

“I’m not looking to move to the suburbs,” he said. “I want to stay here. I want to send my son to this school. So the question becomes, what can we as parents and community members do locally and through political activism to try to make that possible.”

And some parents remain on the fence: hoping the system settles down to something predictable they can count on, but exploring their options in case it doesn’t.

Sozi Tulante is one of those parents. Born in the Congo and raised in Philadelphia, Tulante and his wife returned in 2005 and bought a house in the Penn Alexander catchment with their future family in mind. “Diversity, quality, stability – everything was all planned out,” he said.

The couple now have three children; the oldest will start school next year. But instead of counting on Penn Alexander, Tulante, an attorney, now spends hours each week visiting private schools, learning about charters, and putting together applications.

“I went to public school. I learned English in public school. They sent me on my way,” Tulante said.

“I want to send my kids to public school. And that’s still my number one option. But I don’t want them to serve as guinea pigs.”

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