When There Is No Stitch In Time

Philadelphia Public Schools are facing a $300 million dollar budget short fall.  The School District’s preferred solution is more funding.  So far, increased revenue has not been found.  The alternative solution involves draconian personnel cuts.

Without a doubt, this budget stalemate is still an act in progress.  The School District is hoping the City and State will come to their senses and increase funding.  The School District is also hoping the Teachers Union will also wake up and agree to contract modifications.  Hmmm.  But what happens if neither occur?

The approximate 4000 reduction in staff will result in a far less viable teaching platform.  That should come as no surprise.  In a city where high schools graduate between 50 and 60% of their students, allowing the education product to deteriorate seems the wrong direction to head.

What is instructive, however, is to see how Philadelphia (and I suspect many other school districts) got in this pickle.  They did not “take a stitch in time (to save nine)”.

Over the years, Public School employees like other public sector employees bargained for competitive wages and benefits.  As the private sector world began to change, Teachers Unions dug in their heals and refused any concessions.  Concessions would be “give backs” they argued.

Teachers pay is at best only part of the problem and not the largest.

The School District conflated two separate issues, (1) the deteriorating education product, and (2) the on going fiscal strength of the District.  In other words, the School District chose not to take on the Unions and threw money at improving graduation rates even though it did not have the money to throw.

Along the way, State and Local officials granted “one time” requests without extracting any solid plans from the Superintendent of Schools on how the education product would improve and how the budgets would be balanced.  When the City grew impatient, they dismissed the Superintendent and got a new one (with new ideas).

Along the way, Philadelphia got the worst of everything.  Without long term funding, new programs labeled as the silver bullets lasted one or two years, and then had to be stopped due to lack of funding.  All the while the rest of the District was going down hill steadily.  Roofs leaked, text books were missing, and morale was low.

Along comes the next great hope, Charter Schools.

Charter Schools did produce higher graduation rates but cost the City about the same.  A closer look, however, shows that Charters are no better since they can be selective in who they choose to admit.  On the plus side, Charters, for the present, have far wider range of work rules and can dismiss teachers based upon merit.

The underlying problems with Philadelphia Schools (and many others) are tied in large part to social and economic differences.  For the most part, children from homes where parents are involved and care do well.  But large parts of Philadelphia are dirt poor and lack cohesive families.  If Charters have a place, this is where they should be placed, not cherry picking the better students who would do well in a normal public school.

The Teachers Union still has the opportunity to be part of the solution.  Instead of “no give backs”, why not propose independent methods for teacher assessment coupled with increased pay for those teachers who excel.  Why not agree to teacher dismissal when independent evaluations determine a teacher is not performing?

The City needs to step up to its funding responsibility.  Property taxes lag the suburbs, and its not too hard to see that impact.  The State needs to recognize the special situation large cities inherit when poverty concentrates within their borders.  Rather than ignore the drop outs, it ought to be the State’s challenge to break the poverty cycle with a successful education program.

The current Philadelphia Superintendent of Schools has drawn the line.  He has said that if this is all the money the City and State will make available, then this reduced level of staffing is all the Philadelphia children will get.  The Superintendent has also said, “you will not like this picture”.

Start sewing (or is it sowing?).

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