Amid annual budget crises, faith in public education fades

Lisa Haver, with Alliance for Public Schools, holds up a sign, expressing her views, in the SRC budget meeting Wednesday night. Community expected to turn out in full force to wring hands over the Philadelphia School District's "empty shell" budget - which may require 1,000 more layoffs and class sizes ballooning to 41. Will fold in some details from a "listening tour" Mayor Nutter held earlier in the day at George Washington High. 04/30/2014 ( MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer )

I have been a believer and cheerleader for Philadelphia public schools my entire adult life. My wife, Sara, and I invested our time, our support, our passion, and our three children into this belief.

Our children had no vote. They grew up knowing they would suffer the courage of their parents' convictions.

As graduates of Philadelphia Catholic schools in the 1960s, both of us embraced public school education as a moral good and a provider of crucial life lessons about differences in race, income, and backgrounds.

We succeeded. They learned the lessons well.

All three of our children live in the city. They take visceral and eternal pride in being Philadelphians. But they don't send their kids to Philadelphia public schools. Our grandchildren go to a suburban private school.

And, frankly and sadly, who can blame them. Personally, this onetime advocate has given up on Philadelphia schools.

Look at the history.

I can't remember a time when Philadelphia public schools were not in a moral, racial, or financial crisis.

In 1967, the year I graduated from high school, thousands of students walked out of classes and marched on the Board of Education headquarters near the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, demanding a better education, more black teachers and principals, courses in African culture and African American history, and more.

It was the '60s. What can I say?

In response, Philadelphia police waded into the chanting students, beating them brutally with fists and sticks. Some claim to have heard Police Commissioner Frank Rizzo shouting, "Get their black asses."

Accurate or not, 20 people were treated for injuries, including five police officers, and 57 were arrested.

From today's point of view, the year 1967 almost looks like the good old days of Philadelphia public schools. Then, even with booming Catholic school competition, there were about 280,000 public school students. There are fewer than half that number now, and how many show up on any given day is a statistical crapshoot. Even with the absences, class sizes increase because there aren't enough teachers.

In the good old days, teachers fought back. In the 1972-73 school year and again in 1981, Philadelphia teachers went on strike for weeks for higher pay and better working conditions. Today, teachers strikes are as rare as newspaper union strikes.

Yet today's teachers are faced each year with an agonizing budget crisis that allows the district to ask with a straight face for 13 percent salary givebacks - for the good of the children.

This in a school district that bought out the previous superintendent's contract for almost $1 million, mocking the sacrifices of teachers and staff.

But at least that superintendent had a vision. Here's what she saw for Philadelphia in 2014:

"A great city system of schools in which teachers, principals, parents, staff, policymakers, and the entire community collectively focus all energy, efforts, planning and development, resources, and initiatives on building a 21st-century culture of achievement. . . .

"Where children come first, excellence is the norm, talent is nurtured, opportunities are made equal, and success is measured by the steady improvement of teaching and learning in classrooms system-wide . . . resulting in accelerated student progress . . .

"A school system in which all students succeed, families have many quality choices, the staff is great, adults are accountable, and world-class operations support the entire enterprise."

Blah-blah-blah. Here's what teachers, principals, parents, staff, policy makers and the entire community are focused on in 2014:

Will the schools have enough money to open next month?

Right now, the people who finance and control the School District have no will to do right by the children. The state House couldn't bother to return from vacation to approve a cigarette tax for Philadelphia schools that would only apply to city residents. Why expect them to have the will to create a long-term, fair funding formula so we don't have to endure the annual school budget crisis?

And without the will, there is no way.

So let me repeat: I've given up on the Philadelphia public schools.

To do otherwise, to believe that our so-called leaders will step up, would be like believing in Santa Claus.

Why would any parent - from middle-class couples with financial options to urban-loving millennials - invest children into a system as clueless and irretrievably abandoned by all.

I look at the endless stream of young, hip parents bicycling their helmeted toddlers through Center City traffic or adjoining neighborhoods, and I wonder:

Where does that fearlessness go when it comes time to choose a school?


Clark Deleon's column appears regularly in Currents.