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“Indescribably insane”: A public school system from hell

Pennsylvania's right-wing governor drains public schools of basic funds -- and the sickening details will shock you

Want to see a public school system in its death throes? Look no further than Philadelphia. There, the school district is facing end times, with teachers, parents and students staring into the abyss created by a state intent on destroying public education.

On Thursday the city of Philadelphia announced that it would be borrowing $50 million to give the district, just so it can open schools as planned on Sept. 9, after Superintendent William Hite threatened to keep the doors closed without a cash infusion. The schools may open without counselors, administrative staff, noon aids, nurses, librarians or even pens and paper, but hey, kids will have a place to go and sit.

The $50 million fix is just the latest band-aid for a district that is beginning to resemble a rotting bike tube, covered in old patches applied to keep it functioning just a little while longer. At some point, the entire system fails.

Things have gotten so bad that at least one school has asked parents to chip in $613 per student just so they can open with adequate services, which, if it becomes the norm, effectively defeats the purpose of equitable public education, and is entirely unreasonable to expect from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

The needs of children are secondary, however, to a right-wing governor in Tom Corbett who remains fixated on breaking the district in order to crush the teachers union and divert money to unproven experiments like vouchers and privately run charters. If the city’s children are left uneducated and impoverished among the smoldering wreckage of a broken school system, so be it.

To be clear, the schools are in crisis because the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania refuses to fund them adequately. The state Constitution mandates that the Legislature “provide for the maintenance and support of a thorough and efficient system of public education,” but that language appears to be considered some kind of sick joke at the state capital in Harrisburg.

It’s worth noting that the state itself runs the Philadelphia School District after a 2001 takeover. The state is also responsible for catastrophic budget cuts two years ago that crippled the district’s finances. And in a diabolical example of circular logic, the state argues that the red ink it imposed, and shoddy management it oversees, are proof that the district can’t manage its finances or its mission and therefore shouldn’t get more money.

Make no mistake, on the aggregate the district does not perform well. Only slightly more than 60 percent of students graduate from high school, with less than 60 percent proficient in reading and math. But put that in the context where 80 percent of students come from disadvantaged backgrounds while administrators struggle to cobble together enough cash to even open doors, let alone provide a safe, rich and comprehensive educational experience.

Particularly noxious lawmakers are fond of spouting the ridiculous notion that money can’t help struggling schools, as if more and better-trained staff, better equipment and diverse programming wouldn’t make a difference in kids’ educations and their lives.

The timing of this meltdown is unfortunate, as if there were ever a good time for the euthanasia of public schooling. According to the 2010 census, Philadelphia grew in population for the first time in 60 years, changing direction from decades of decline. Most of that growth came from immigrants who will rely on public schools — or not, as the case may be. Another area of growth was in young families, who will face a choice, once they have school-age children, to stay in the city or flee to superior suburban schools as previous generations have done.

Nearly the entire burden to keep the district afloat has fallen to the city, which raised property taxes each of the two previous years specifically to funnel extra money that the schools weren’t getting from the state. This is in one of the poorest and most highly taxed cities in the nation.

The floundering district is both a symptom and cause of the city’s predicament, creating a vicious cycle of people who can afford to bail moving to the suburbs, leaving a crippled tax base, with the result being less money to fix the schools and ever-higher taxes imposed on those who stay.

Unlike the city, the state could come up with the necessary cash without excessively burdening its finances. Pennsylvania has the lowest severance tax of any state drilling for Marcellus shale gas, with plenty of room for an increase. The state had a modest surplus at the end of the last budget year. The governor has no trouble coming up with money to build new prisons, which will serve as future homes for all too many children of Philadelphia who are being failed and tossed aside by adult leadership, if you can call it that.

The pattern has become clear: defund the schools, precipitate a crisis and use that as an excuse to further attack the schools, pushing them closer and closer to a point of no return. The $50 million to open the schools this year is just the latest and most immediate example of three years of brinkmanship.

The district was hit with a double whammy in 2011, when stimulus funds that it had idiotically been using for operating expenses dried up, and incoming Gov. Tom Corbett took office eager to prove his reactionary bona fides by enacting massive budget cuts to public education to the tune of $1 billion statewide, disproportionately hitting Philadelphia. The result was an absurd $629 million shortfall, which was filled by a mix of cuts and city tax hikes.

Last year, the district took out a $300 million bond to patch another big deficit, the very definition of a band-aid fix as it only added to what is now $280 million in annual debt payments.

This round of budget hysteria kicked off in May when the superintendent announced that the district was another $304 million in the hole for the upcoming school year and requested extra funding from the city and state as well as givebacks from the teachers union to fill the gap.

To prepare, he laid off nearly 4,000 teachers and staff members, and closed 24 schools, after the district had shut eight the year before. Empty buildings and mass layoffs — the perfect image of 21st century education.

The city and state came up with a Rube Goldberg device of funding worth about $140 million, composed of repurposed federal funds, better city tax collections, borrowing against future city taxes and a whopping $2 million thrown in by the state beyond what it had already committed.

Most of even that inadequate amount hasn’t arrived yet as the state sits on $45 million in federal money it refuses to disperse until the teachers agree to enormous salary cuts and rollback of other benefits and city officials bicker among themselves on how to deliver the money they promised.

It’s still unclear what, if anything, will be kicked in by the teachers, who already make disproportionately less money than their suburban counterparts while teaching in much more challenging environments. Their contracts expire at the end of the month.

Leering over the whole mess is the controversial charter school movement, which siphons $675 million from district schools. The charter experiment has been a mixed bag, with some performing well, others proving mere vehicles for graft and corruption. Critics see them as a way to divert public money into politically connected private hands, and even more important, a way to break the teachers union because they aren’t bound by district collective bargaining rules.

It’s not hard to see the same forces at work here as those taking apart public sector unions in Wisconsin and trying to confiscate Detroit city employees’ pensions in Michigan. Indeed, the district leadership met Thursday to unilaterally suspend the school code to get around teacher seniority and automatic raise rules as they use the $50 million to rehire some of the employees laid off earlier this year.

Teachers are understandably displeased at being blamed for a problem the state has caused. “It is Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s obligation to fully fund public education. Yet the budget office seems to be employing any and every means to avoid living up to this responsibility,” Philadelphia Teachers Federation president Jerry Jordan said in a statement. “Chronic lack of resources has brought this crisis to our schools, not work rule provisions in collective bargaining agreements.”

“The trunk of my car is now filled with a carton of paper, pens, lined paper, and copybooks I have bought for my students this September,” district teacher Christine MacArthur wrote in an editorial to the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Now we are also to pay for the mistakes of our employers?”

Parents and students are trying to push back, but may ultimately have little traction. Thousands of students led by the Philadelphia Student Union walked out last spring to protest the doomsday budget, to no avail. Now, with the stark projections of May becoming reality in August, members are canvassing the streets to rally support. “I’m just doing it for my school because it’s the right thing to do,” one student told a local television station. “We are going to need counselors. Without counselors, it’s going to be hard to get into college.” The group is considering boycotting school entirely if the district doesn’t get the money it needs.

“It’s indescribably insane,” says Helen Gym of the advocacy group Parents United for Public Schools, who has three children in the public school system. “It’s unbelievable that it’s come to this.” The group put out a statement Thursday reemphasizing that $50 million was far from enough to have effective schools.

“I don’t send my child to go to a shell of a building, I send my child to get an education,” Gym says. “They can’t do that with $50 million.”

The district got its $50 million, though, and will get more in dribbles and drips. That will barely, not really, suffice for inadequate schooling this year. Next year, stay tuned for a repeat. Barring an unforeseen economic renaissance in the city or thorough overhaul of the state executive and legislative branches, the district is poised for year after year of one crisis after another.

Parents and teachers are all too aware of what’s happening. “Tom Corbett, the weakest governor in the United States, is trying to stake his claim on completely dismantling and starving one of the nation’s largest school districts into dysfunction and collapse,” says Gym.

The nails aren’t all in the coffin yet, but they are being pounded deeper every year by a state that has turned its back on, if is not openly hostile to, the idea of free and equitable education for all.

“It’s an absolute atrocious mockery of anything related to public leadership,” Gym says. “To not have a stable public school system is more devastating to Philadelphia than anything that has happened before.”

by Anonymousreply 5508/24/2013

Pennsylvania? Really? Oh my.

by Anonymousreply 408/19/2013

The condition of American schools is horrendous, but after seeing the politics and the infighting in my city's school system, it's hard to care, much less see a solution to the whole mess. It's like the Middle East -- longtime dysfunction, loathsome people on either side, a lot of innocent people get hurt in the process, and it just seems like there's no way out.

by Anonymousreply 808/19/2013

Now who on DL if stuck living in Philly wouldn't send there kids to any other school, even if, God forbid, it was religious? Glad I'm child-free.

by Anonymousreply 908/19/2013

Thanks for posting this, OP. Very much appreciated.

by Anonymousreply 1008/19/2013

"Cheer up, New York, 'cause you're okay Though the President says you won't last another day. I'm here to say you're here to stay And mention, by the way, if I may You got the greatest culture, symphonies and plays Also shopping, eating, meeting places and subways Take pride in yourself, you could be Philadelphia."

by Anonymousreply 1208/19/2013

Take it to the PTA if posting on a gay gossip site will help in any way.

by Anonymousreply 1708/19/2013

R19, your theory is completely unfounded. Where on earth has that been successfully implemented?

by Anonymousreply 2008/20/2013

Yet Americans trust our government to micromanage our healthcare. There's corruption at All levels.

by Anonymousreply 2108/20/2013

Republicans already stinking up this thread.

by Anonymousreply 2208/20/2013

typical republicanism- complain about government being unable to deliver goods and services, and then use their legislative powers to fuck up perfectly good systems like the public school system and the post office, so they can point fingers and say "see, we told you government never works".

it's all a scam to hand over government contracts to their cronies. school choice? SCAM, with the added bonus of breaking teachers unions.

by Anonymousreply 2308/20/2013

I believe the children are our future.

by Anonymousreply 2508/20/2013

Treat them and let them leave the way out of government indoctrination camps...

by Anonymousreply 2608/20/2013

Libertarian cunts need to be drowned.

by Anonymousreply 2708/20/2013

libertarians always think they are the cleverest guy in the room, cuz they know this one simplistic argument really well, but in fact are usually the stupidest person in the room because they are unable to deal with any complexities or gray areas in response to their "argument", or in life in general for that matter.

by Anonymousreply 2908/20/2013

As a Philadelphian, I am ashamed of the deplorable condition of our school system. A poster upthread was 100% correct, they won't be satisfied until it is completely broken, sold off to private concerns, and the teachers' union is defunct. Everyone is at fault though, including parents who 1. Put up with all this shit, and 2. Send out their appalling spawn to wreak havoc in so many of the schools. TPTB who undermined the system will eventually win, they always do. I would be horrified if I had no alternative but to use the Philadelphia Public School System.

by Anonymousreply 3008/20/2013

[quote]Do you own your body?

As long as your flag-bearer Rand Paul is anti-choice, you don't get to make this argument.

[quote]Do you believe that murder/assault, theft and fraud are okay as long as "the government" is the murderer/thief/Madoffist?

How would any of the above be improved under the policies of the Libertarian party?

by Anonymousreply 3108/20/2013

R23 is a voice of reality.

by Anonymousreply 3208/20/2013

A city of children being held political hostage. Horrible situation.

I hate Republicans who play ugly games like this.

by Anonymousreply 3408/20/2013

This is what happened in the middle east and helped create the nightmare we have today. Countries or states or cities that don't educate their children for 1 generation cause chaos for several generations. When those Philadelphia kids don't get a decent education, they don't have a future so they do whatever they have to do to get ahead. That may be crime, anarchy or a lot of other lousy options.

by Anonymousreply 3608/20/2013

R19, Is this the kind of school that should be educating the next generation?

A Ruston school with no library and in which students spend most of the day watching DVDs that mix Biblical verses with subjects such chemistry or composition.

A New Orleans Bible school in a bunker-like building with no windows or playground.

A school just outside Lake Charles in which 1st - 8th grade students sit in cubicles for much of the day and move at their own pace through workbooks.

Some private schools seeking students with publicly funded vouchers pass off myths and urban legends as science. For example, the Lake Charles-area school seeking voucher students uses a curriculum that claims the Loch Ness monster is real and evidence that dinosaurs still exist.

• Some schools approved for state-funded vouchers use social studies texts warning that liberals threaten global prosperity, Bible-based math books that don't cover modern concepts such as set theory, and biology texts built around refuting evolution. Some ignore evolution altogether in their science classrooms.

by Anonymousreply 3808/20/2013

[quote]Everyone is at fault though, including parents who 1. Put up with all this shit, and 2. Send out their appalling spawn to wreak havoc in so many of the schools.


I agree that the GOP would love to defund public schools, but this is the second big source of the problem.

by Anonymousreply 3908/20/2013

The Repukes would like to wipe out universal education, anti-child labor laws, and the minimum wage. That, to them, would be a business-friendly environment.

by Anonymousreply 4008/20/2013

Philadelphia's gay hottie PA Representative wrote an OpEd for HuffPo.

by Anonymousreply 4108/20/2013

Why don't people move out of Philadelphia? I mean why would you stay there?

by Anonymousreply 4208/20/2013

This same scenario is playing out all over the country. Breaking teacher unions, charter schools, privatizing cafeteria services-and none of it is resulting in any educational gains. People need to see that it is all about saving money, kids be damned. The wealthy willingly pay local taxes and vote in budgets for their suburban enclaves or send their kids to private schools.

Abandoning cities and their poor is only going to result in more people swelling the jail rolls. Ultimately there will be more of "them", disaffected poor with no resources, than any other group. You think it is a shock to see Syria and Egypt firing on its own? We are heading there. The rich must be protected.

by Anonymousreply 4308/20/2013

[quote]Why don't people move out of Philadelphia? I mean why would you stay there?

R42's version of let them eat cake.

by Anonymousreply 4408/20/2013

R24, How could parents that are so exhausted by the end of the day teach their kids, when many don't even have the skills or patience to really help them with their homework? What happens when selfish adults expect their kids to raise their siblings, instead of studying?

by Anonymousreply 4508/20/2013

[quote]kids be damned.

right on r43!!! Finally someone speaks the truth in this thread!!!!

by Anonymousreply 4608/20/2013

please r44, let them eat GLUTEN free cake.

by Anonymousreply 4708/20/2013

Learn about the CAFR. That's the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report. It takes some time to comprehend, but once you do, it will blow your mind.

All of these fuckers in government have more money than god, yet they love to cry poor. It's the biggest open secret in the world.

by Anonymousreply 4808/21/2013

[quote]It is only a matter of time before the new breed of private programmer/economists will catch on to the far reaching implications of the work begun at Harvard in 1948. The speed with which they can communicate their warning to the public will largely depend upon how effective we have been at controlling the media, SUBVERTING EDUCATION, and keeping the public distracted with matters of no real importance.

I was listening to the superintendent of the Philadelphia schools and they're going to open the schools now with no assistant principal, no guidance counselors...NOTHING but a few teachers and a principal.

If anyone needs guidance counselors, these kids do.

by Anonymousreply 5108/24/2013

Forced Genuflection To A Government School Principal

Chris Rossini

If a person who has a lust to dominate others is given power, there's going to be problems. Naturally, such people are attracted to government "jobs" more than any other. After all, what can be better than to have the legal authority to live out your delusions of grandeur?

You don't have to reach the pinnacle, and become a President, who drones innocent people around the world. Libido dominandi would have to run exceptionally strong through you to reach that level. For as F.A. Hayek argued in The Road to Serfdom, when it comes to government, the worst rise to the top.

No, there are plenty of other government "jobs" where you can puff out your chest like a peacock and show everyone who's boss. Just go to an airport, Post Office, DMV, or even a government school.

CBS Los Angeles reports that a school in San Bernardino County: ...will discontinue a policy that required elementary school students to kneel down before being dismissed to class.

Principal Dana Carter at Calimesa Elementary School had reportedly instituted the policy, which called for students at various times of the school day to kneel down on one knee and wait for the principal or another administrator to dismiss them, as a safety measure. [...]

Mass phone notifications were sent out on Tuesday informing parents that students will not be made to kneel effective immediately.

Power truly warps the human mind.

by Anonymousreply 5208/24/2013

Link for R52---

by Anonymousreply 5308/24/2013

Government education is designed to keep kids docile and easily manipulated.

by Anonymousreply 5408/24/2013

All government education is the same.

by Anonymousreply 5508/24/2013
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