Maybe you heard about the sixthgrader who died several hours after suffering an asthma attack at a school lacking the budget for a nurse last fall. Maybe you read about the firing this spring of three principals embroiled in a standardized-test cheating scandal that implicated 140 educators in 33 city schools. If you’ve caught any news about public education in Philadelphia recently, chances are it hasn’t been good. Headlines about the city’s school system have been so alarming, and so frequent, that it’s hard to know where to begin.
In 2011, school district superintendent Arlene Ackerman was sacked after three years marked by ballooning deficits, political acrimony, and a teacher-assisted cheating scandal. Her dismissal, which came two weeks before the start of the school year, included a $905,000 buyout package. Three months later, she astonished local taxpayers by filing for unemployment compensation.
In 2012, the district borrowed $300 million to cover immediate operating expenses. The state-chartered School Reform Commission (SRC)—a five-member unpaid board that has supervised the Philadelphia School District since the city’s board of education was dissolved by Pennsylvania’s legislature in 2001—cited “dire circumstances” stemming from a structural deficit.
In 2013 the SRC voted to close 24 schools that were operating below capacity, yielding poor educational results, or both. Despite this cost-saving measure, the district faced a $304 million shortfall. It responded with a so-called “doomsday budget” that laid off 3,783 teachers, counselors, nurses, assistant principals, school aides, and others in June. than 80. In the same time span, enrollment at District-run schools has fallen from more than 200,000 to about 131,000.
The District pays charter schools a per-pupil fee derived from the average cost of educating a student within the public system. But since any given charter draws students from dozens of traditional schools, where fixed costs account for a substantial portion of the total educational bill, the District pays out more than it saves from having one less child in its care. This less-than-zero-sum dynamic informs a 2013 report by Moody’s, a credit-rating agency, that cited charterschool expansion as a growing risk to the fiscal stability of urban school districts in general and Philadelphia’s in particular. This year, the Philadelphia School District is paying some 34 percent of its operating funds directly to schools it does not operate. After debt-service payments, only 52 percent of the District’s operating budget goes to support education in its own schools. And the District’s red ink imperils the same charter schools that are driving so much of the spillage, since their management fees are pegged to the District’s own increasingly constrained educational expenditures.
For the children, parents, and educators sticking it out in Philadelphia’s public-school system, either by choice or for lack of it, the future is uncertain. Yet they have allies—of different stripes and ideological persuasions— in places ranging from City Hall to the kindergarten trenches. In the pages that follow, more than a dozen Penn alumni discuss the causes of this debacle, and the varied ways some of them are trying to fix it.