For people who care about public education, the news from Philadelphia is grim. Even for a city accustomed to doomsday budget scenarios, this year’s fiscal crisis is staggering. The School District of Philadelphia, with a total budget of $2.4 billion, faces a shortfall of $300 million. In an effort to close this gap, the district has shuttered dozens of schools, laid-off thousands of employees, and made previously unimagined cuts to school-level programming and staffing. The consequences of these cutbacks were apparent when schools opened this September: in many schools, classrooms are severely overcrowded, secretaries and assistant principals are gone, materials are in short supply, key staff (such as guidance counselors and nurses) are dividing their time between several schools, and arts and other programs have been scaled back or cut altogether.
This year’s budget crisis, like those that have preceded it and those that are likely to follow, can be traced to the vicious combination of middle-class flight to the suburbs and a school funding model that relies on declining local property taxes. The result is a cycle of underfunded schools and rising poverty. In 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Education, the School District of Philadelphia spent $13,000 per pupil on a student population that is 77 percent poor and 76 percent African American or Latino. A few miles away, in the affluent suburb of Lower Merion, where the student population is 7 percent poor and 10 percent African American or Latino, per-pupil spending neared $27,000. Is it any surprise Philadelphia’s schools are struggling?