This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
Philadelphia has lived with bare-bones funding of schools before, but now there are hardly any bones left.
It’s not clear how these depleted schools can manage all their critical functions in the face of the loss of so many key staff – counselors, assistant principals, librarians, nurses, aides. Teachers too: Class size limits seem like distant goals, and split-grade classrooms are back. About the only category that was spared is school police. The cuts are a formula for academic disaster. Many families wonder whether schools have enough staff to ensure children’s safety.
The root of the problem is Pennsylvania’s continuing failure to use a rational formula to provide adequate school funding based on student need. Localities bear too heavy a burden in funding schools. Purse strings are controlled by a governor and legislature whose excuse for starving public education is that the state has no money – because they are virtually never willing to raise taxes or close corporate loopholes.
To complicate matters, Gov. Corbett is so determined to crush the teachers’ union that he has withheld almost his entire modest aid package until the teachers accept sweeping givebacks. One has to wonder whether the real goal is to starve traditional public education and accelerate privatization.
But these alarming conditions cannot be pinned entirely on the governor. They reflect a disastrous abdication of responsibility by the mayor, the School Reform Commission, City Council, and other elected officials and civic leaders. Nobody took the lead in heading off the crisis or rose to the challenge of finding emergency aid for the schools – despite persistent protests by organized parents, students, teachers, and other stakeholders. City leaders have failed to speak with one voice about the root issue of inadequate funding or to agree on a way the city can step into the breach.
As the city’s leader, Mayor Nutter bears a fundamental responsibility for ensuring the school system’s viability. Yet he too acts helpless, as if there’s no money. After a feeble, go-it-alone attempt to secure state funding largely failed, the mayor now has effectively sided with the weak, unpopular governor. He backs Corbett’s demand to secure givebacks from the teachers’ union rather than insisting that Harrisburg fulfill its constitutional responsibility to schoolchildren.
It is hard to take seriously the mayor and SRC’s plea to teachers for “shared sacrifice” when they accepted the state’s failure to deliver stable, ongoing funding. Sadly, they don’t appear to be fighting for children.
Nor has the teachers’ union convinced the public that it is fighting for children, though there is much sympathy for teachers, who are being asked to bear the brunt of this crisis. Teachers here are not well compensated, and the union’s offer to take a pay freeze and pay into health benefits is reasonable. Philly teachers should not be forced to take deep pay cuts or be the guinea pigs for unproven new compensation systems.
But like other players in this tragic drama, the union has shown little leadership. It’s time for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers to step out of its self-protective posture and advance creative, practical proposals to help get the system out of this continuing crisis.
With officials either unwilling or unable to solve this debacle, the only option remaining is a massive public campaign. We must insist – and demand – that our children get the resources and services they need.