WHEN PUBLIC school starts today in Philadelphia, the hopes of a generation will hang in the balance.

It is a generation of children that comes from the Philadelphia we don't talk about. For them, the papal visit won't matter, because it won't change the fact that many of them live in poverty. Nor will it change the fact that they've been relegated to a school system that is under significant strain.

These children - 203,000 of them if you count public charter schools - are stuck in a school district with a proposed 2015 budget of $3.1 billion. Yet the reality for too many of our children is that the school buildings are dirty, the books are old and their best teachers are leaving in frustration.

Don't believe it? Pennypacker Elementary, my neighborhood school, is on its third principal in three years. And while I know there are caring teachers at the school - I've worked with them while volunteering - I also know that it's hard to gain traction without good leadership. And it's hard to keep leaders when educators are held responsible for failures they didn't cause.

One such failure is the huge drop in test scores in Philadelphia district schools between 2014 and 2015. A scant 17 percent of students in grades three through eight scored proficient in math, down from 46 percent the year before. In language arts, the proficiency rate fell from 43 percent to 32 percent.

I'm sure the poor work habits of some teachers played a role in that drop. Perhaps parents and students themselves also share some portion of the blame. But the reality is our students were set up for failure even before the tests began. And the huge drop in test scores started far away from the classroom.

"It's largely a result of two things," state Sen. Vincent Hughes told me in a radio interview. "First of all, the four years of underfunding in our schools [under former Gov. Corbett] has really made it hard to create the right kind of academic environment for our kids to get an education. We've been talking about that for the last four or five years. In addition to that, much more rigorous PSSA and Keystone tests have been put in place . . . and quite frankly . . . more rigorous tests without the appropriate resources to educate the kids creates a difficult environment and make it harder for the kids to do well."

On this, the first day of school, let's do something dramatically different from what we've done in recent years. Let's move our children toward success instead of setting them up for failure.

That means putting people before politics, and urging the governor and state legislature to come to a budget agreement in Harrisburg so the schools can be funded throughout the school year. If they don't put a state budget in place by mid-to-late October, the schools will run out of money.

Moving our children toward success means demanding accountability from both the school district and ourselves. If there are billions in the budget, why does my daughter come home from one of the best public schools in the city and complain that the bathrooms aren't fully stocked? I don't know, but I do know this: If we are to make sure the money is being spent to educate children, we need thorough and consistent audits of school district funds.

Moving our children toward success means paying close attention to what happens not only in our schools, but also in our homes. It means working in partnership with teachers to hold our children accountable. It means taking responsibility for providing every possible support our children need.

When children do well in school, they do well in life. When they don't, they end up in the kinds of institutions that no parents want to see their child occupy.

Let's hold everyone accountable for what happens in our schools this year.

If we don't, a generation could be lost.

Solomon Jones, whose column appears Tuesdays, is the author of 10 books. Listen to him mornings from 7 to 10 on WURD (900-AM). More at Solomonjones.com.