As another school year draws to a close, it is important for all of us to reflect on our successes and challenges of the year, and to work diligently to ensure that come August, our students are prepared for success. Setting our students up for success is something we talk about frequently — but too often, it’s just that — talk.
Philadelphia, we have some tough choices ahead of us. Are we going to invest in crucial programs and services that our children not only deserve but to which they are also legally entitled? Are we committed to expanding Mayor Kenney’s Community Schools initiative, where students all over the city are benefiting from schools that are transforming into community hubs, bustling with activities, programs, and energy? Do we believe that Dean Pagan, the young boy poisoned by lead paint in his classroom at Comly School, deserves the resources he needs to thrive and grow? Are we willing to recognize that the systemic and massive environmental hazards in our schools will not get fixed without extraordinary investment? Or, do we want to just talk?
It’s good that the elected officials in our city recognize the enormous challenges before us and are taking a variety of approaches to these challenges. Council President Darrell L. Clarke is pursuing an important bill that would greatly expand affordable housing across the city — something that low and mid-income neighborhoods, where residents are getting priced out of their homes at alarming rates — desperately need. In fact, council members across the city are invested in causes that matter to them, and most importantly, to every day Philadelphians.
And when Council is asked, once again, to make hard choices for the constituents and communities it serves, I know that it will find a way to make sure that the students we all serve have what they need to truly thrive. That’s why, when the City Council Committee of the Whole meets on Tuesday afternoon, I am hopeful that it will move legislation forward that will enable us to make critical investments in our schools.
The mayor has introduced a package of tax bills, some of which Council has already moved through committee, to fund our schools. A property tax increase is certainly a tough pill to swallow for all Philadelphians — but the alternative is simply unacceptable. Curtailing the community schools program, a research-based intervention model that has been shown to have enormously positive effects on our communities; going back to the not-so-distant-past days of mass layoffs and school closures; allowing for school conditions to continue to deteriorate — these are simply not viable alternatives to providing school funding.
In addition to the mayor’s tax plan, part of which has been passed through committee already, there is other legislation such as Councilwoman Helen Gym’s tax abatement bill that could provide essential funding to our schools. This legislation would modify the tax abatement to ensure that wealthy developers would no longer be exempt from the School District portion of the property tax.
We can talk all we want about our children and their hopes and dreams, but unless we do something about the realities of our schools — crumbling buildings, lead paint poisoning, asbestos, a teacher vacancy crisis affecting thousands of students — then our talk about the success of our young people means nothing.
Are we, as a city, committed to making tough choices to make sure that there is never another student poisoned by toxic conditions in the very building they go to learn and grow each day? If the answer to that question is yes, then it’s about time we talk directly to our elected officials and urge them to continue making real financial investments into our schools.
Jerry Jordan is president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.