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The challenge for Superintendent Hite

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Last month, Superintendent William Hite said he would consider opening the schools fully staffed and run them until the money runs out rather than institute a new round of layoffs. The School Reform Commission, in a rare display of independence and political courage, signaled it would support him. 

After the budget debacle in Harrisburg, in which the governor and his supporters failed to raise substantial new revenue, it’s time for Hite, the SRC, and public education advocates to take that step.

The revenue picture

Right now, the District’s only prospect for more money is from the proposed $2-per-pack city cigarette tax, a measure that represents no new revenue from the state and only enables Philadelphia to further tax its own citizens. This tax is regressive, will hurt small retailers in the city and probably won’t deliver the revenue projected. But even this tax is far from a done deal, as Corbett and his allies had been using the stalled legislation as leverage to get the Philadelphia delegation to support their version of pension reform.

Moreover, even if the cigarette tax was passed and the revenue projections held up, it would not be enough money to maintain the status quo, let alone restore the massive cuts that were made last year.

Dr. Hite is on record as saying the District needs $96 million to maintain things as they are and $320 million to start developing what he has called a “system of excellent schools.” We are still, as he acknowledges, far short of what affluent Districts provide.

If this is the benchmark, Hite should spend what funds are in hand to reach it, challenging the state and the city to provide the resources to sustain it until the end of the school year.

The legislature reconvenes on Aug. 4. At that time, we should demand they pass a robust education revenue package, including a 5 percent extraction tax on Marcellus Shale, closing corporate tax loopholes, and freezing the phase-out of business taxes. 

Given Corbett’s intransigence, passage of such a package would be difficult. However, a substantial number of Republicans have indicated support for a shale tax, and widespread dissatisfaction across Pennsylvania with the level of state support for schools in an election year works to our favor.

In January of next year, there is a strong likelihood a new governor will be in Harrisburg, one who is expected to favor new revenue for education. A campaign around this issue now will strengthen Tom Wolf’s election prospects and provide a mandate for him to take action when in office.

Next year, Philadelphia will hold elections for mayor and City Council. School funding will be a major issue. Instead of regressive sin taxes and selling off public assets, new revenue from scaling back tax abatements for the rich, getting mega-nonprofits to contribute their fair share, and more aggressive targeting of big tax delinquents need to be discussed.

To create the broadest unity around this challenge, Dr. Hite and the SRC need to drop their demand that school funding come from labor concessions. This is an unfair and destructive policy that is costing Philadelphia the opportunity to build a stable, experienced and competitive corps of teachers and professionals. The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers has signaled its willingness to negotiate a contract that recognizes the District’s grim fiscal realities, but it has not and should not agree to the wage give-backs and attacks on working conditions.

Historical precedent

In 1998, then-Superintendent David Hornbeck, faced with inadequate revenue from the state, threatened to close schools early rather than cut school budgets. 

In Hornbeck’s case, a backlash from Harrisburg cost him his job and led to the state takeover of Philadelphia’s schools.

Hornbeck’s unapologetic advocacy for Philadelphia’s schoolchildren and his willingness to challenge the racial and class double standard when it came to school funding raised the hackles of Republicans -- and some Democrats as well -- in Harrisburg.

Today, our schools are in more desperate condition than they were at that time. The need for bold action is clear. And with the political winds shifting, the chances that it might succeed are better.

 

Ron Whitehorne is a retired teacher and a coordinator for the Philadelphia Coalition Advocating for Public Schools (PCAPS).

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

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Ron Whitehorne

Ron Whitehorne, a retired teacher, has been a political activist in Philadelphia for four and a half decades with roots in the civil rights, anti-war and labor movements. Becoming a teacher in the 1980s, he was a longtime building rep, and co chaired the PFT's Community Outreach Committee.