Commentary: To gain better schools, 10-year tax abatement must end
As the Our City, Our Schools coalition mobilizes for the May 8 budget hearings, we are calling for Philadelphia’s City Council to secure more money for our schools through equitable tax policies that make corporations, mega-nonprofits, and the rich pay their fair share. In particular, we’re focusing on the repeal of the 10-year tax abatement, which could add $386 million to the District over the next 10 years.
We’re all familiar with the argument for the abatement: It has been a boon to development, turned around the decades-long decline in the city’s population, and attracted more affluent and middle-class professionals to reside here. But in response, we have to ask, “What kind of development and at what expense?”
Downtown condos and gentrification are the main products of the abatement. Our already under-resourced schools are the main victims. And the middle-class families who move here to take advantage of the abatement are, all too often, the families who leave for the suburbs a few years later because of their frustrations with the schools.
I live in Lawncrest, a working-class neighborhood in the Northeast that is fraying at the edges, with a declining commercial corridor and a large stock of postwar housing that is starting to show its age. It’s a diverse neighborhood with many immigrant families, who have staved off population decline, as they have in other parts of the Northeast. It’s a neighborhood where home ownership is fairly common, but so are low wages and poverty. People struggle to get by.
I also volunteer two days a week and serve as a member of the School Advisory Council at Franklin Elementary, the K-8 public school that serves the neighborhood. The dedicated staff members there serve nearly 1,000 students, including a large English learner group. The building can’t house that many students, so kindergartners and 1st graders attend classes in the Salvation Army two blocks away.
By the School District’s measures of quality, Franklin falls somewhere in the middle. But what strikes me about the school is the enormous need. I work at the front desk, where I provide late notes to students and sign in parents and school visitors. Most students attend regularly and are well-behaved, but there is a large group of students who are chronically late and a smaller, yet significant, number who are emotionally traumatized and engage in disruptive behavior.
Of course, money is not an automatic fix for these problems. But, clearly, without additional resources, not much will change. Smaller class sizes, more counselors and mental health services, and a full-time community organizer to build deep parent engagement would go a long way to making the school successful. Franklin applied last year to be a community school, targeting some of these problems in its application, but that initiative is on hold because of inadequate revenue and litigation over the controversial soda tax.
Philadelphia needs schools that can provide nurturing climates and high-quality education for all its children. Laying that groundwork would provide a foundation on which the city can sustain positive social and economic growth. That goal must take precedence over maintaining a generous subsidy for condo developers and dwellers.
The mayor deserves support in calling for increased funding and having the political courage to call for increasing taxes. However, that won’t work unless he includes a call for equity, beginning with ending the 10-year abatement. It’s also excellent to see our housing justice allies increase funding for the housing trust fund to address gentrification.
Keeping our city affordable and improving its schools are the two central challenges for City Council and the mayor this year. We need to let them know on May 8 that we expect them to step up to the plate.
Ron Whitehorne is a retired Philadelphia teacher and a steering committee member of 215 People’s Alliance and the Our City, Our Schools coalition. He has been a political activist in Philadelphia for nearly 50 years.