Philly's Schools Are So Broke They're Borrowing Cash to Start the School Year

Parents call it "the deliberate starvation of one of the nation’s biggest school districts."

Image
Flickr/It's Our City

It is a normal rite of August for kids to dread the start of the school year. This, however is not normal: when all the grownups in town, the parents, the taxpayers, the mayor, and the superintendent are dreading it, too.

This is currently the state of affairs in Philadelphia, where it was unclear if the public schools would even open on time next month until Mayor Michael Nutter vowed on Thursday to borrow $50 million to make it happen. The situation is so bad, the New York Times reports, that one beleaguered elementary school principal even mailed home letters asking parents to make donations to fill his budget ($613 per student, please).

Even more depressing? The Times finds two students who've been selling rubber band bracelets for $5 a piece to raise money for the district.

As Rick Lyman and Mary Williams Walsh explain the backstory to Nutter's drastic move this week:

The unusual situation stems from a combination of politics and long-term structural problems. Decades of dwindling population and resources had already greatly weakened the schools, but now the Republican-controlled state government has drastically cut aid to the district. This move struck some in the Democratic-controlled city as punitive, though Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said the statewide cuts in education had nothing to do with party politics but with the simple need to do something about the state’s own poor finances. Federal aid to the district has also been chopped.

The Philadelphia School District is an anomaly — unlike many school districts across the country, it has no elected board of education, and never has, at least in modern memory. That means the normal political dynamics found in other places with troubled schools cannot play out here. When the voters get fed up, there is no way they can throw out unsuccessful board members.

The city's finances have actually been improving for several years, but none of the attention that's gone into reviving the city has apparently been directed at its schools. Now, this $50 million in bonds will only guarantee the bare minimum: basic staffing and security come Sept. 9. No one, as angry parents have pointed out, is even talking about the level of funding that would be needed to actually educate children, beyond merely opening the doors for them.

Nutter's bar seemed relatively low Thursday. In a press release from the city announcing the plan to borrow money, the mayor declared in all CAPS: "I WILL NOT RISK A CATASTROPHE. We WILL avoid this disaster."

But the dire solution doesn't bode well for the 136,000 students in the system caught between budget-slashing elected officials, shrinking federal aid and a teacher's union trying to renegotiate its next contract. "The concept is just jaw-dropping," one parent told The Times. "That’s what we’re talking about here: the deliberate starvation of one of the nation’s biggest school districts."

Top image: Flickr user It's Our City

About the Author

  • Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific StandardGOODThe Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.