The Philadelphia School District is in major chaos.
It is one of the largest districts in the country, and is also one of the most bankrupt. Currently, it is facing a $304 million deficit and 20 percent of the total staff has been laid off. That’s about 3,800 employees and includes assistant principals, secretaries, and teachers.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan has called the situation an “educational crisis.” He intervened last week after advocates, including American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, launched a campaign to get the highest education official in the United States involved in the situation that affects about 204,000 traditional and charter school students in the district.
“There's no excuse for a public school system anywhere in the U.S. to be in this situation in the 21st century,” Duncan said in a statement last Wednesday. “Philadelphia's children didn't create these problems or ask for them.”
The Philadelphia district has been in trouble for 10 years. But such dire financial straits could occur in any U.S. school district as the influence of charter schools mixed with funding cuts for traditional public schools combine for a perfect storm of financial distress.
Jerusha O. Conner, an education professor at Villanova University and an expert on the Philadelphia school district, told TakePart that the state shoulders much of the blame for the city’s problems.
“Pennsylvania ranks 8th lowest in the country, spending only 35.8 percent on education, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau,” she said.
And for the first time in decades, the amount the nation’s schools spent per student fell in 2011—a possible sign of more education cuts to come for schools across the country.
Conner said that, according to the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools, “were it not for the deliberate underinvestment and disinvestment in Philadelphia schools by the state, and the misguided investment in an oversized and exceptionally costly charter school sector … the district could easily be enjoying a multibillion-dollar surplus instead of a deficit.”
Some education watchers blame Republican Governor Tom Corbett and have said that he should have allocated more money for Philadelphia in his budget. Currently, a state rescue package of $141 million is awaiting Corbett's signature. But that is not nearly enough to pull the district from its troubled waters.
Conner also points out that what is happening in Philadelphia has already occurred in Chicago.
“It is no coincidence that the Philadelphia School District is facing a plight similar to that of the Chicago public schools, with mass school closings, teacher layoffs, and budget shortfalls,” she said.
Perhaps, that’s because Philadelphia’s former superintendent, Paul Vallas, was in Chicago prior to Philadelphia. In Chicago, he enacted similar reforms as those in Philadelphia.
“In Philadelphia, he was known for what is variously called the ‘contracting regime’ and the ‘diverse provider model,’ as he ushered in an era of private companies contracting to run various school services as well as schools,” Conner said.
The privatization of public education is an increasingly problematic issue for school districts.
In fact, Corbett told local reporters last week that he had “sought advice” on the $141 million package from “businesspeople—notably Pennsylvania's Republican national committeeman Robert Asher, Comcast Corp. executive vice president David Cohen and Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Rob Wonderling.”
While Corbett waits to sign the rescue package, Duncan has ordered the Department of Education staff “to provide any needed technical assistance to both the district and the commonwealth.”
He said, “The bottom line is that doing what's right for Philadelphia students will not only benefit the city—but the commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the country.”