Matt Rourke / AP

How to dismantle a school system

Racked by budget cuts, Pennsylvania’s schools are coming apart at the seams

July 22, 2014 6:00AM ET

Graduating seniors last month celebrated the end of a difficult year at Philadelphia’s Bartram High School, one prominent example of Pennsylvania’s deepening public education crisis.

Michael Miller, the father of one college-bound graduate, complained that the state keeps “taking money and taking money, and it’s a scary thought where we’ll be in five years.” He returned from military service in Afghanistan just as Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s education budget cuts began to hit the state’s poorest districts.

For years Pennsylvania has served as a testing ground for the conservative theory of small government — more specifically, since 2010, when Corbett signed a no-new-taxes pledge crafted by anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist and rode a Tea Party wave into office. The effects have proved deleterious. Corbett’s cuts to public education have been particularly painful, with poor districts like Philadelphia bearing the brunt.

The city’s school district now faces its third consecutive budget crisis under Corbett, who cannot visit his state’s largest city without facing massive protests. According to data provided by the School District of Philadelphia, it has 6,321 fewer staffers this year than in 2011 — a reduction of nearly 27 percent. That includes 2,723 fewer teachers, 58 nurses, 406 counselors, 286 secretaries and 411 noontime aides. There is no fat left to trim, but more layoffs are still on the table.

At Bartram this past year, two counselors tended to a 94 percent black student body that is 91 percent poor. There is a library but no librarian and arts, music and advanced placement classes are rare. Bartram opened last fall with a skeleton crew and has had to nonetheless welcome droves of new students from one of 24 city schools closed for cost savings.

But it was not overworked teachers and students missing out on a high-quality education that grabbed headlines. In April a student threw a staff member against the wall and knocked him unconscious. Extra school police and a backup co-principal arrived. It was a clear indication that student needs were being controlled rather than met.

Bartram has just one school nurse, and she often has to deal with two emergencies at once. She points out that she cannot do so. 

Long underfunded and segregated, an entire public school system serving society’s most vulnerable children is being dismantled.

This is a problem throughout the district, where two students died in the past school year after falling ill at schools with no nurses on duty. It is impossible to say whether a nurse would have saved them. But staffing cuts indisputably put students at risk every day. A federal assessment recently uncovered by Philadelphia City Paper showed that many school buildings have mold and water damage that the district is too broke to fix and pose serious environmental health risks.

Add these reports up and you start to see that something remarkable and terrifying is happening in Philadelphia. Long underfunded and segregated, an entire public school system serving society’s most vulnerable children is being dismantled. But the crisis didn’t come out of nowhere.

In 2001 the state took over its largest school district and promised that market-inspired reform would be its savior. First came a for-profit management company and then dozens of privately managed charters. Some charters provide a great education. Others boast abysmal performance and managers prosecuted for theft and corruption. (To give you a sense of the numbers: 131,362 children attended district schools this year, and 60,774 more attended charters.)

But market-driven reform has not performed as promised. It has sapped district finances, prompted staff churn and administrative chaos and fostered an obsessive focus on standardized testing. One Philadelphia principal and four teachers have even been arrested this year after reporters uncovered possible widespread cheating in 2011.

The summer will provide little respite as the state legislature continues to dither over whether to send more funds to city schools — by allowing the city to raise its cigarette tax. Many staffers once again have no idea whether they will return to work in the fall, and better pay and teaching conditions in the suburbs make it hard to attract top talent to the city. This is the face of separate and unequal education 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ruled segregation unconstitutional.

Some public school advocates propose that come fall, the district should open its schools without making further cuts and simply close shop in protest when the budget runs dry. The November elections could be the country’s most clear-cut voter referendum on austerity to date. A recent poll shows that voters rank schools as their top priority, and they’re giving Corbett a failing grade. The outcome for Philadelphia students, however, is already clear.

Daniel Denvir is a reporter at The Philadelphia City Paper. He is conducting an investigation of the Philadelphia schools crisis in partnership with the Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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