The School District of Philadelphia, the eighth largest school district in the United States, nestled in the country’s fifth largest city, will make history when it permanently closes it doors within the next two years.
While Philadelphia is one of the largest school districts in the country, it is also one of the most bankrupt. The district will start the 2013-2014 school on September 9 but stares at a $304 million deficit. If it weren’t for the city borrowing $50 million on behalf of the school district, none of the 218 public schools would be opening next week. The slight infusion of money allows Superintendent William Hite to open schools on time but it’s far from meeting the needs of the district that had to lay off 20 percent of its total staff over the summer. It was the second consecutive year of thinning out staff that saw 3,800 teacher and staff positions eliminated, 100 school nurses, 90 school resource officers, and 43 bilingual counselors.
Although the school district continues to have financial and academic trouble year after year, the finger pointing halts at the State of Pennsylvania. After taking control of the district in 2001, the state has not fixed any of the problems in Philadelphia; allowing the current situation to spread like a virus. Jerusah O. Conner is an education professor at Villanova University and is an expert on the Philadelphia school district. In a recent interview, the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools said that the state shoulders much of the blame for the district’s problems. “Pennsylvania ranks 8th lowest in the country, spending only 35.8 percent on education. Were it not for the deliberate underinvestment and disinvestment in Philadelphia schools by the state, the district could easily be enjoying a multibillion dollar surplus instead of a deficit.”
Many in the education field say that Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett is to blame for the crisis in Philadelphia. Corbett should have allocated more money for Philadelphia after taking office but instead, he made massive budget cuts in 2011, including cutting $1 billion from education statewide. The results of Corbett’s axe wielding left the district with a $629 million shortfall that year and the momentum of the crisis continued to grow. The city of Philadelphia attempted to generate money by raising property taxes 3.85 percent last year to generate an estimated $53 million for the district but that, just like this year’s gift of $50 million, is just a band aid on a severed artery. Some lawmakers in the Pennsylvania acknowledge the crisis and put together a state rescue package for Philadelphia. The $141 million aid, along with an additional $45 million from the state previously allocated to the district, is awaiting Governor Corbett’s signature. The money is being withheld by the state while Superintendent Hite and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter negotiate with the teachers’ union about taking enormous salary cuts and rolling back certain benefits. Since there has been no agreement with the union, funding from the state is being held and will only be released once negotiations are complete.
Education experts, like Professor Conner, say that Corbett has an agenda for Philadelphia and that plan, apparently, is to strangle the life out of the struggling district. According to a report, 80 percent of Philadelphia students come from disadvantaged backgrounds, only slightly more than 60 percent of students graduate from high school, and less than 60 percent are proficient in reading and math. Those numbers aren’t acceptable to Governor Corbett. After cutting the education budget, the Governor commissioned Boston Consulting Group, a major global-business consulting and school “right-sizing” firm, to a $1.5 million contract to fix the Philadelphia problem. Boston Consulting Group has a worldwide reputation for crushing teachers’ unions and putting most public schools under charter control. Corbett followed the firm’s advice and the infusion of charter schools is starting to overrun Philadelphia.
According to The Philadelphia Citypaper, the School District of Philadelphia will spend $729 million on charter schools in the coming fiscal year. Nearly a third of Philadelphia’s students will attend 84 charter schools this year and it will cost the district an estimated $7000 per student to attend a charter school. Parents are starting to move their children away from the nearly extinct public schools by enrolling them in charter schools and virtual charter schools. The problem with this equation is academics and money. A Stanford study found students at 100 percent of Pennsylvania’s cyber charters performed significantly lower than the peers at traditional schools. Five Pennsylvania cyber charters receive $200 million in tax money each year to produce unacceptable results. The Agora Cyber Charter, which is run by the for-profit company K12, made $31.6 million last year from state taxpayers. It’s interesting to note that billionaire Michael Milken is an owner of K12 and that Mr. Milken was convicted of racketeering and securities fraud in 1989.
Adding more fuel to the charter fire is the state’s law that keeps the school district powerless. Daniel Denvir says, “For reasons that aren’t clear, millions of dollars have moved between the network of charter schools, their parent nonprofit, and two property-management entities. The School District is charged with overseeing city charters but 'does not have the power or access to the financial records of the parent organization.'” This is how companies like Aspira Inc. are draining the life out of Philadelphia schools. Denvir reports that Aspira Inc. of Pennsylvania operates four Philadelphia charter schools and owes large sums of money to the district. As of last June, that total had climbed to $3.3 million. The Philadelphia charter school scandal, however, has become common the past five years. Since 2008, 18 Philadelphia charter schools have been under federal investigations. A 2010 City Controller investigation stated that the district is “extremely vulnerable to fraud, waste, and abuse.” Superintendent Hite even went on record to say, “Unmanaged, self-directed, charter-school growth could force the district into a perpetual deficit.”
Unfortunately, for Mr. Hite and everyone involved with the School District of Philadelphia, the end is approaching. Over the summer, the governor appointed School Reform Commission (SRC), passed a “doomsday” budget for Philadelphia that included cuts so drastic that there was no money for school to open this fall and funding for things such as paper, new books, athletics, arts, music, and guidance counselors would be slashed. In a press conference this past May, Thomas Knudsen, the Chief Recovery Officer for the School Reform Commission, stated that SRC plans to, “close 40 schools next year and an additional six every year thereafter until 2017. The remaining 20 to 30 schools would be placed into ‘achievement networks’ where public and private groups would compete to manage the networks.” Adding more fuel to the fire, Governor Corbett is now backing legislation that will dramatically decrease charter oversight, reduce local control, extend the charter period from 5 years to 10 years, and grant automatic charter renewals.
This crisis, and the ultimate downfall of Philadelphia public schools, could have been avoided through proper financial management. At the end of the last budget year, the state of Pennsylvania had a modest surplus but Governor Corbett chose to allocate money towards building new prisons. Helen Gym, a public school parent and the founder of Parents United for Public Education, told the Washington Post, “Pennsylvania is one of three states in the nation without a funding formula for schools (based on enrollment, population, or other metric). The funding of districts is basically determined in back room deals among party leadership, with little consideration of need or even actual enrollment.”
Although schools will open in Philadelphia next week, the district and the city have a long year ahead of them while Governor Corbett’s charter movement continues to gain strength. In a year or two, we will all look back at this historic event and talk about how Tom Corbett turned the School District of Philadelphia into Sodom and Gomorrah.