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For months, I’ve watched the school funding crisis unfold, and as I’ve done so, my emotions have swung from anger to outright grief.
I spoke to students who marched Broad Street, their anguished cries of “S.O.S.! Save Our Schools!” falling largely on deaf ears. I covered a boisterous rally at School District Headquarters on the evening the School Reform Commission (SRC) approved the budget that cut 4,000 District jobs. At AxisPhilly’s Schoolhouse Watch forums, I listened as a man emotionally recounted how his grandmother’s house was razed to make room for University City High School—one of 23 school buildings that were shuttered in June.
I’ve seen the tears of students, the anger of parents, and the frustration of teachers as each group has tried to digest the full meaning of a School District deficit that could reach $304 million. Perhaps worse, I’ve seen the predictions of activists and union members come to fruition as schools opened with skeleton crews in place to operate them.
But even with all I’ve seen and experienced over these last few months, the pessimism expressed in a new poll out from the Pew Charitable Trusts is sobering.
Conducted in July and August, the poll found that “Philadelphians have a very low opinion of their city’s financially distressed public school district and that most residents think the system’s problems will drive families to seek other educational options or leave the city.”
Only 18 percent of the Philadelphians surveyed said the schools are doing a good or excellent job. Fifty-two percent said the schools are poor, a jump of nearly 20 percentage points from last year.
Taken alone, those findings are not surprising, given the level of turmoil the schools have experienced over the last few months. But when the poll results are combined with the other research Pew has done concerning closing schools and the overall state of our city, the poll illustrates what we all know to be true—that the financial troubles the School District is facing aren’t the only thing we’re angry about.
In June, 23 school buildings were closed in an effort to alleviate the budget shortfall. In neighborhoods throughout the city, this was viewed as the stripping away of the last remaining community institutions in places where 95.6 percent of the students were economically disadvantaged.
In neighborhoods that so acutely reflect Philadelphia’s status as the most impoverished of America’s large cities, allowing large school buildings to go vacant represents much more than a looming threat to property values. It’s a reflection of the value that the city puts on its most vulnerable citizens.
Take Vaux and Reynolds, for example. Located in the 22nd police district, which had 1,535 violent crimes last year, the now-shuttered schools are surrounded by hundreds of vacant properties and the Norman Blumberg Homes—one of Philadelphia’s last remaining high rise housing projects.
Because of their location in a place where poverty, crime and blight intersect, those schools—and many like them—have little value to anyone other than the students who attended them and their parents.
That, I believe, is the most significant truth that was revealed by the poll.
While 18 percent of all Philadelphians said the schools were doing a good job, 21 percent of those making under $30,000 rated the schools as good or excellent, and people with school-aged children gave the schools a slightly higher rating.
That means people who actually use the schools were more satisfied with the schools than those who were on the outside looking in. Yes, parents who use the schools were disappointed by the tumultuous end to the most recent school year. They were angered by the funding crisis. But when they looked at the neighborhood schools their children attended, they saw places that meant something to them.
Perhaps it was because they’d come in contact with a caring teacher who didn’t make the news for doing his or her job. Or maybe it was because they actually walked inside the schools, and saw places that were clean and orderly. Or perhaps they understood that schools support the one thing that matters most—the future.
While I found it interesting that the poll asked who was to blame for the schools crisis, I didn’t care that 31 percent of respondents blamed Mayor Nutter and City Council while 31 percent blamed Gov. Corbett and the state legislature. I wasn’t impressed that 23 percent of those who plan to leave the city in five to 10 years listed child-rearing issues as a primary reason for departing.
The blame game is a public relations matter, and the young people who talk about leaving were going to move to the suburbs anyway. But on the poll’s central point, that the public is pessimistic about the schools, the data show that those who use the schools aren’t as pessimistic as we think.
Let’s hope that bit of optimism is well-placed. Because if we continue to let the schools flounder, families will do exactly what the poll says they will. They’ll seek other educational options or leave the city.
That’s one thing Philadelphia can’t afford.