In baseball when your team trails in the bottom of the ninth inning, an old-time announcer used to refer to it as “Last Chance Inn” time. Score enough runs to survive or lose. There’s reason to believe that our public schools have entered the Last Chance Inn. Philadelphia public schools are facing a crisis. You’ve heard that so many times it doesn’t register anymore. It’s kind of like when the little boy who cried wolf. Why pay attention this time around? But there’s reason to believe that this time, the wolf really IS at the schoolhouse door. The real question in Philadelphia is: Does anyone really care?
Last July, Mayor Kenney took back the fate of the schools from Harrisburg. Think what you want about Kenney, you can’t doubt his passion for the city’s public schools. Kenney didn’t attend public school, but sometime, somehow, saving the city’s school system has become his magnificent obsession. Now that’s as close to a thankless task as you can get politically in this state or this city.
The political constituency for the city’s public schools may not be small enough to fit on the head of a pin, but it’s close. Despite the boundless enthusiasm of advocates such as Councilwoman Helen Gym (and former teacher and contributor to this newspaper, Gloria Endres), dealing with the needs of the public schools has seemingly exhausted the patience of politicians and voters. Forget about whether that’s fair to the 135,000 students who attend our public schools, it’s the political reality in Philadelphia. It’s the reality the mayor faces in his latest efforts to fund the schools mainly through a property tax hike. When you advocate for tax hikes and cuts that will require sacrifice from the city’s residents, your argument for their needs must be credible. The salvation of the public school system has become a hard sell even for those of us who want them to be saved.
Tax increases are never popular. The failure of the soda tax to raise the projected goal of $92 million doesn’t help. I would argue, as does the mayor, that even though the projected revenue from the that tax fell 15 percent short of its goal, it did raise $78 million for the city’s pre-K program. By 2028, the soda tax will have funded pre-K for an additional 5,500 students. You can focus on the shortfall of 1,000 students, as one local columnist did, but without the soda tax, NONE of the students would be able to attend pre-K. When the soda tax was proposed, its critics correctly predicted the shortfall. But many of them also suggested the better alternative would’ve been to raise property taxes. Now that the mayor is proposing to supplement school revenue by doing just that, many of these same critics have reversed themselves.
The biggest obstacle to the credibility of public school advocates is that the school administration has badly mismanaged its budget. There’s a perception that the school system is top-heavy with high salaried administrators. The Ackerman factor is still with us. The deceased former superintendent of schools, Arlene Ackerman, was tone-deaf when it came to public relations. She collected a fat buyout when she left. The public perception of wasteful spending is still impacted by Ackerman’s controversial tenure.
I had a recent conversation with an employee of the public school system — someone whom you’d expect would be sympathetic to the plight of public schools. She told me that she and her friends who send kids to the public schools have already been hurt by the hike in the price of soda. They don’t want an increase in their property taxes, she continued. We don’t need more administrators with academic degrees, collecting big salaries, she said, or words to that effect. If she represents the base of support for public schools, the political case for supporting the city’s public schools is in trouble. The fact that the majority of our public school students are non-white is likely a factor in the small base of support for the city’s public schools. But minorities themselves, in increasing numbers, are fleeing the public schools for charter schools. Public school advocates correctly point out that the funding for charter schools has largely come at the expense of the public school system. It’s true that during the past year, Harrisburg has improved the formula for distributing funds, but that redistribution applies to NEW state funds only. The public school constituency can’t count on support from parochial school parents. They have their own problems coping with fewer schools and increasing tuitions.
There is also a school of thought represented by Ernest Owens, a writer for Philly Mag, who recently detailed five ways to raise the money for schools WITHOUT raising taxes. Owens advocates cutting the city payroll, eliminating the DROP program, reducing the 10-year tax abatement, improving the collection of back taxes, and going after scofflaws.
The mayor should be applauded for taking accountability for our public schools. He says we can’t depend on D.C. or Harrisburg to ride to our rescue. Kenney has convinced me. But there are too many others not convinced. The mayor should take his case directly to the people via town hall meetings and a televised prime-time press conference.
The mayor cares. But he must convince you. Otherwise public school students will be checking into Heartbreak Hotel.