Recent reports tell us that Philadelphia’s crisis of poverty shows no signs of improvement, and that we remain the poorest big city in America.
It makes headlines, but for 400,000 of our fellow Philadelphians, it’s not news at all. What they know from bitter experience is that within a day or two, everybody will forget about this story and, as a city, we’ll go on making the same mistakes. Worst of all, nearly 150,000 of them are children whose only connection to the problem is that they were born in the wrong ZIP code.
Think about that for a minute: If “Poor in Philadelphia” were a city, it would be the second-largest in Pennsylvania. It would be almost the size of Miami; and bigger than Cleveland.
And when we talk about needing more money to solve our problems, think about this: If all of the nearly 252,000 adults living in poverty here had jobs that allowed them to pay what the average resident pays in city wage tax, it would generate nearly $605 million in tax revenue.
In other words, if these folks could hold jobs that allowed them to support their families, there would be money available to address all of our other issues.
What’s more, we already know how to solve the problem. The biggest single cause, as one expert described it, is “a deeply problematic school system” that largely fails to educate our children and prepare them to find work and live productive and happy lives. If we really want to address the devastating impact of poverty in our city, then fixing our public schools is the only real answer.
As a parent of two daughters who are public school graduates; as a former member of the School Reform Commission; and now as an advocate for parents and families under the banner of Educational Opportunities for Families, I can tell you that I care a lot about fixing our city’s public schools. But as a recent report released by Pew highlights, we have two education systems in this city. One that disfavors low-income, black and brown children by stranding them in poorly performing neighborhood schools, and one for upper- and middle-class white children with better, safer neighborhood schools and magnet schools.
This is not an attack on the SRC or the Philadelphia School District, or even the public school unions. It’s just the truth: In Philadelphia, we focus far too much attention on the needs of these adults than on those of the children in our schools.
Parents, especially parents living in poverty, are telling us that when it comes to giving their children access to a better education, they don’t care whether the school they choose is a traditional public school, a public charter, a parochial, or a private school. They only want their children to have a chance at a better life.
When these parents flee the district by the tens of thousands, they are also telling us that they cannot wait any longer for great public schools. And that’s especially true in places such as North Philadelphia, where nearly three dozen schools recorded single-digit scores – failing grades by any definition – on the district’s recent School Progress Report.
It doesn’t have to be this way, and I call on parents of school-aged children across the city to join in demanding high-quality schools for all children in Philadelphia. We join this fight by getting involved in your neighborhood schools, supporting good schools, and holding all failing schools accountable whether they are charters or district schools.
Together, let’s make news that really matters to Philadelphia’s future.
Sylvia P. Simms, a former member of the School Reform Commission, is Executive Director of Educational Opportunities for Families.