On Tuesday, residents voted to return Philadelphia schools to local control. In the final chapter of a 16-year drama, over 80 percent of Philadelphians voted to entrust Mayor Kenney and City Council to take bold leadership and change the fate of our city’s public school district.
While there is a new sheriff in town, as last week’s thorough and impressive “Toxic City and Sick Schools” series from the Inquirer detailed, our city officials have their work cut out for them. The question now is, do the mayor and City Council have the political courage to step up for our kids? Sadly, if we look at recent budget deliberations, it is as clear as ever that our leaders are afraid to demand that the wealthy pay their fair share.
Philadelphia faces an unprecedented crisis, a time bomb ticking away in our schools. After years of deferred maintenance in aging buildings, our children and school workers are being exposed to dangerous toxins like mold, lead, asbestos, and animal droppings. Without serious funding and strict oversight, these problems will only get worse. It is not an exaggeration to say we are sending Philadelphia children to school to be poisoned.
Last week, while stories of children with lead poisoning filled the front page of the Inquirer, the School District went before City Council and stated, to our dismay, that our school budget is fine for the next two years — and Council readily jumped at the opportunity to kick the can down the road. Both the School District and Council are ignoring that our school budget does not come close to funding the schools our children deserve. The budget does not call for robust investments to begin to undo the damage of years of austerity and completely sidesteps the issue of toxic schools.
Council members have rightfully raised concerns about the impact of raising property taxes on working-class residents, especially since assessments have risen sharply. Our City Our Schools shares this concern. Increasing property taxes only contributes to the displacement of black, brown and poor Philadelphians. That’s why our coalition of parents, educators, and students has put forward a series of revenue measures and other proposals that would force corporations, developers, and universities to pay their fair share. The Our City Our Schools plan would bring in over $300 million per year to our schools and can be acted on immediately by the mayor and Council.
The ideas in the Our City Our Schools plan are simple. Council could begin by repealing the 10-year tax abatement — because there is no reason why our city should be subsidizing luxury condominium developers while our children attempt to learn in buildings that make them sick. How can we justify tax breaks for Comcast, a company that makes billions in profits, when children get respiratory problems and lead poisoning? Why aren’t Kenney and Council beating down the doors of the University of Pennsylvania, an institution with an endowment larger than the GDPs of dozens of countries, to demand it pay up? Why isn’t our city figuring out creative ways to finance school building renovations, like creating a public bank? And since the School District has sought to minimize the problem of our decrepit schools, while we look to create new revenue, we also need a plan for transparent and rigorous oversight. Thankfully the Philadelphia Healthy Schools Initiative has established a transparent plan for how money for fixing our buildings should be spent.
Equitably funded, safe, quality schools are the key to the future of this city. We must turn the page on what has increasingly become a “Tale of Two Cities,” one that is white, rich, and protected by our political leaders, and the other that is black, brown, desperately poor and deliberately left behind. Council and the mayor need to step up to lead — and if they do not have the courage to lead, then it is time to turn the page on our mayor and City Council, and find new leaders that have the will to fight for all Philadelphians.
Antione Little is the chair of the Our City Our Schools coalition, a steering committee member of 215 People’s Alliance, and a parent of six Philadelphia schoolchildren. Katrina Clark is a member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ Caucus of Working Educators and a teacher at the Workshop School.