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In less than a week Philadelphia’s school year will begin. That would normally evoke a mix of anticipation and pride for me as a father, because each new school year marks a new beginning, a step forward, another year of growth for my children.
But this year, my feelings are considerably more volatile, because unlike my son, who is in private school, my daughter attends a Philadelphia public school, and she won’t have the same level of resources she had last year. That’s wrong, and it makes me angry.
In a school district that just shuttered 23 school buildings in a bid to stave off a looming $304 million budget deficit, the reality of crumbling schools has made nearly everyone angry, from students whose schools were closed, to teachers whose health benefits and salaries have made them scapegoats for school funding shortfalls.
Anger. I feel it every time I think of the 136,000 students who will report to poorly resourced schools on Sept. 9. I feel it because I know that while the city plans to borrow (or raise through the sale of School District buildings) $50 million to partially close the funding gap, most schools will open with one secretary per school, itinerant music teachers, roving counselors, and part time nurses – far less personnel than they had before. Yet our prisons never close for lack of money.
But even as I consider the funding crisis that has brought us to this point, it’s not the school funding that angers me most. It’s the effect all this could have on my daughter.
To be clear, my daughter, a sixth grader at one of the city’s elite magnet schools, will not face the kinds of hardships that students in some struggling neighborhood schools will be forced to endure. While her classes will remain overcrowded, with more than 30 students in each room, classroom behavior won’t be a problem. Staffing shortages, however, have already caused school administrators to feel the pinch.
The Home and School Association has spent the last month lining up parent volunteers to answer phones. They have also sold items like sweatshirts and tee shirts to raise funds to support the school. Parents, including my wife, have stepped up to volunteer, but this is not unusual. In my daughter’s school, many parents have the financial wherewithal and scheduling flexibility to be involved.
But what of the children in neighborhood schools where resources are few? What of the children whose parents are working three jobs? What of the students who are barely holding on? What will happen to them? Or to put it directly: Will the fallout from their losses eventually affect my child?
In a school district like ours, it’s hard to tell. Some insiders say the funding crisis has been decades in the making, fueled by wanton spending and countless changes in leadership and direction. Others point to the need for a fair funding formula like the one implemented under former Gov. Rendell. Still others point to the loss of federal stimulus money and the severe reductions in state spending that have taken place under Gov. Corbett. Then there are those who are convinced that conservative state lawmakers are bent on starving public schools in a bid to turn the entire system over to charter school operators.
I believe there is some truth to all of those theories. That’s why it’s so disheartening to see everything devolve into finger pointing between the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), the mayor, the council president, and the School District.
At a time when there is so much uncertainty in the public schools, the focus should not be on winning the P.R. war. The focus should be on all of our children, including the fortunate ones like my daughter. Because if we’re not careful, there won’t be any more elite public schools to worry about, and students without financial means won’t have anywhere to go but down.
As an author, I’ve visited many schools, including some of the worst in the Philadelphia School District. In doing so, I’ve seen what every public school could look like in the wake of complete disinvestment.
Once, during a visit to a disciplinary school at Glenwood and Allegheny in North Philadelphia, I visited a classroom full of students whose creativity was awe-inspiring. Then I walked into the hall. Two females—a teacher and student—came barreling through a closed door with fists flailing. Security eventually stopped the fight, even as both women continued to swing.
In such places, violence is a matter of course. No one expects anything different. Not even some parents. And it’s not always a matter of apathy. Sometimes, in poor communities like the North Philadelphia neighborhood where I spent my teen years, parents are overwhelmed by work, or by children, or by the unrelenting weight of poverty. Sometimes a visit by an author, or a businessman, or anyone, really, is not an academic exercise. It’s a reprieve from the stress of hopelessness.
I don’t want my daughter to end up in such an environment. That’s why I work so hard. That’s why my wife drills her on academics. That’s why we continue to support the Home and School Association’s efforts to bolster my daughter’s magnet school. But if the boom-and-bust school funding cycle continues to produce such crises, no amount of parental involvement could sustain the city’s best public schools.
That’s my greatest fear as the father of a public school student. That in the rush to destroy the worst in public schools, the powers-that-be will also destroy the best.
That would break my daughter’s heart, and in truth, it would break mine, too.