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News about the dire situation of the Philadelphia school district has dominated the headlines, but not many people seem to care. That sounds harsh, but it is true.
I am sure if you took a poll the majority of the public would agree with the notion that government should support public education, but that sentiment is just that. A sentiment. It has no force behind it, certainly no political force.
If it did, the political class would be far more nervous, scrambling about to do something, anything to get the money needed, the way the government springs into action after natural disasters.
Why the inertia and inactivity when it comes to the schools?
One obvious answer is race. The district is composed mostly of poor black children. If I need to say more in explanation then you must be a recent arrival to town. Maybe from Antarctica.
But, the district does not simply have a racial problem, it has a political one.
Most Philadelphians have no direct stake in the public schools. What happens in the district may be the stuff of headlines, but it is not part of their everyday lives.
Everyone who lives in the city has direct experience with city services, such as police, trash and street repairs.
But, only one in four households — 140,000 out of 578,000 — has school-aged children. The rest do not use the schools at all.
Of those who do have children, 44 percent send their children to somewhere other than a district school. These kids are enrolled in Catholic, private and charter schools and an increasing number are being home schooled, often via cybercharters.
According to the census, there are about 250,000 children in kindergarten through high school in Philadelphia, but only 140,000 attend public schools.
Of the parents who do have their children in the public schools, a sizeable number wish they could send them elsewhere.
In a poll done for a 2010 study by the Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative, public schools parents were asked if they had seriously considered sending their child to a private, Catholic or charter school. Sixty-two percent said they had. The figure was even higher among black parents: 68 percent.
There was little evidence of brand loyalty. For parents today, education is no longer synonymous with public education.
Let’s personalize these numbers. Suppose you were running for public office and found out that 75 percent of the voters had no idea who you were and, of those who did, the majority disliked you. You would probably move out of town. Maybe to Antarctica.
A former superintendent once ruefully told me that the schools existed primarily to provide jobs and everything else was secondary. That sounds cynical, but that doesn’t make it untrue.
The fact that the district employs 22,000 people and that many of those workers are organized into unions has been a plus because they do have political clout. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, in particular, is well organized and gives generously to political campaigns. In tandem with the PSEA, which represents most teachers outside the state’s big cities, it has often stitched together bipartisan support in Harrisburg to get more state aid for education. This coalition succeeded with many governors — Republican and Democratic — until it ran into the brick wall known as Tom Corbett.
This year, Philadelphia teachers are under siege. District leadership, which has already extracted concessions from blue-collar employees, is seeking the same from PFT members — to the tune of $100-million plus. Pay cuts and givebacks are being sought.
The union has tried to rally support for its cause among the public, invoking the language of workers rights, economic justice, plus a dash of rhetoric about being victims of a right-wing conspiracy to destroy public education.
It hasn’t resonated deeply, at least so far. The PFT is a solidly middle-class union and that makes it hard for it to rouse sympathy in a town where the median household income is $37,000 a year.
For the record: 67 percent of teachers are white, 49 percent live outside the city and the average teacher makes $70,363 a year. This data comes from an analysis of district payroll records.
The truly unfortunate thing about the district’s weakened political position is that it will only get worse if the district makes the cuts outlined in the budget the School Reform Commission approved on Thursday.
Come September, public schools will open. There will be a teacher in each classroom and a principal in each building and that is the most you can say. Gone will be virtually all support staff, guidance counselors, librarians, many nurses, music and art programs and all extra-curricular activities, including sports.
No caring parent would want their child to inhabit this bleak landscape. In turn, this will increase the push — already present among parents — to flee the schools and perhaps the city in the process. Fewer constituents means less power and less chance of capturing the funds the public schools will need now and in the future.
Right now, the district is living through a financial nightmare. If these trends continue, its political nightmare will come next.