Saturday, December 20, 2014

It isn't just city schools

School districts across the state have funding issues, but you wouldn´t know it by their legislators´ actions.
School districts across the state have funding issues, but you wouldn't know it by their legislators' actions. MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer

The decision of Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. to open Philadelphia schools on time was the right call. Delaying school to protest its inadequate funding would only make matters worse for a system with too many students already performing below grade level.

Unfortunately, the decision to open schools without knowing whether they will get the funds to close an $81 million budget gap may exact a high price as well. Gov. Corbett is advancing the district its budgeted $265 million state allocation, but without knowing whether more funds will be available to finish the school year, cost-cutting steps must be taken.

Hite said he won't immediately lay off more than 1,000 employees, most of them teachers, which would cause some class sizes to jump to 40 students. But that could happen later. In the meantime, bus transportation will end for thousands of students, school police jobs won't be filled, and less professional development will be available for teachers.

For the better part of a year, the district has warned what would happen if it didn't receive enough funds to fill a budget gap. But the response has been inadequate. The legislature went home for the summer without approving a Philadelphia-only cigarette tax that would make the remaining budget gap manageable.

In the end, the same old anti-Philadelphia mentality that has hurt the city before seemed to prevail, with legislators from other counties complaining that the city wanted special treatment. Not even larding up the cigarette-tax bill with amendments to help other jurisdictions could get the legislation passed.

Some say the city delegation's inability to move the cigarette tax is a sign that the state needs to go back to the old days when legislative leaders were more adept at making deals. But they're wrong. The jail time some of those deal-makers accrued will attest to that. The leadership needed, from the governor's office on down, is in getting Pennsylvanians everywhere to find common ground.

Philadelphia didn't seek the cigarette tax because it wants special treatment. The idea was born out of desperation when the city couldn't get what districts across the state also need - properly funded schools.

Schools statewide have had to lay off more than 23,000 employees since 2011. More than half the state's districts expect to eliminate or reduce academic programs next year. Yet you have legislators from other districts whose schools also need more money acting as if Philadelphia's funding problems have no relevance. "These people just don't give a damn," said Sen. Larry Farnese (D., Phila.).

Shutting down Philadelphia's schools wouldn't make them give a damn either. Instead, the hard work must continue to get everyone with poorly funded schools in Pennsylvania to make their legislators understand that they will no longer tolerate sending their children to crowded, poorly equipped classrooms. They need to make the politicians understand that education funding is the No. 1 issue for voters.

Forging that coalition may take more time than the days left before the schools reopen. But public pressure from every corner of the state can make the difference in getting the legislature to act on education funding statewide before the schools have to make more crippling cuts.

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