Don't lower the bar to $50 million for schools
by Helen Gym on Aug 12 2013 Posted in Commentary
The title of Alfie Kohn’s 2000 book,The Schools Our Children Deserve, has become a visionary slogan for public education advocates across the country. It was the phrase I was thinking of last week as I listened to dueling press conferences from the mayor, the District, and City Council about the lack of funding that threatened the opening of school.
It wasn’t because I heard the phrase echoed by our public officials. I heard the opposite. Instead of funding the schools our children deserve, they talked about funding the schools we can minimally afford, or funding the least we can get away with, or funding schools not in gross legal violation of basic educational standards.
That became most apparent when Superintendent William Hite undercut what was arguably the bravest act of his short tenure here. I commend Dr. Hite for saying that the current level of funding makes our schools unsafe for opening. After more than a decade under a state takeover that promised to fix a broke and “failing” district, Dr. Hite’s statement that Philadelphia doesn’t have enough money to even open schools was a stunning indictment of the failure and neglect of that takeover. But I was baffled by the figure he threw out as an ultimatum to open them – $50 million.
When did $50 million become the new bar?
In May, the District passed a budget that cut $250 million – almost entirely from schools. Back then, officials made a plea for a $180 million rescue package from the city and state. Of that amount, the state has delivered exactly $2 million out of a requested $120 million; the city has delivered $28 million of a requested $60 million.
The superintendent said that the $50 million figure was “necessary but not sufficient” for the District to open schools. The money would restore maybe a quarter of the 4,000 employees laid off in June, he said.
Let’s think about that for a moment: “The schools our children deserve” vs. “necessary but not sufficient.”
Two years ago, Chester-Upland School District opened the school year with insufficient resources. By mid-year, they had run entirely out of money and appealed to the state to pay teachers. The appeal fell on deaf ears. It took a federal judge to force the state to live up to its obligations. Is that the crisis we face when we open schools with "necessary but not sufficient" funds?
Perhaps one of my greatest frustrations as a parent in the District is the ways in which we normalize deprivation and impoverishment in schools. Resources are cut every year with associated catchphrases like “austerity” or “education reform” to justify them. I have no doubt that a deal will be cut between the city and state and District -- perhaps imminently -- and a victory will be declared. Is it a deal that we can tolerate anymore? The standard today has nothing to do with the quality of education our children receive. Now it's a "victory" to open the doors, flip on the lights and eke out the minimal number of salaries to operate a building rather than a school.
Consider guidance counselors. Dr. Hite said that $50 million cannot guarantee a guidance counselor for every school. Instead they’ll be distributed on an arbitrary basis to the “largest and neediest” schools. The problem is that schools aren’t needy, our children are. Telling a child who needs emotional support in school, who might be dealing with family troubles or an illness, who is being bullied in class or needs advice on post high school options – telling any child in this city that they are not entitled to a guidance counselor cannot be the norm we as parents tolerate.
If we settle on $50 million, we accept the fact that we will enter another year of crippling resources for schools. We justify more school closings and outrageous labor demands on teaching and educational professionals who we are struggling to retain. Fifty million dollars to open schools ensures larger class sizes, fewer aides, and more pressure on schools to independently and inequitably fundraise for basic operating expenses.
Fifty million dollars ensures that we move farther and farther away from the notion of a thorough and efficient education and increasingly toward dramatic inequity and resentment and competition for scarcer resources.
How much longer can this continue? How much longer can parents limp along and pray for cheap handouts as our children suffer in schools stripped to the bones?
We have tolerated this too long.
Today, members of the faith community, parents, students and community members are calling upon the city and state to fulfill the entire $180 million requested in the spring and to work toward a full and equitable funding formula that ensures an end to this madness regarding school funding. The $180 million package must require the District to redo its entire budget to ensure a guidance counselor for every child in every school in the city, and the restoration of a “thorough and efficient” number of teachers, school aides, assistant principals, librarians, nurses, and school secretaries.
There is no reason to open schools otherwise.
All across the city, parents are saying, "no more." It’s time to grind this system to a halt. It’s time to demand more than the least we can give. It’s time to give Philadelphia the schools our children deserve.
Helen Gym is co-founder of Parents United for Public Education, an editor at "Rethinking Schools," and a contributor to and former board member of the Notebook.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.