For city schools, a century of struggle

Students protest school closings outside district headquarters in March. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Students protest school closings outside district headquarters in March. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 16, 2012

Speaking of the Philadelphia School District recently, Mayor Nutter said, “If we don’t take significant action now, the system will collapse.” That “significant action” could include widespread school closings, many more charter schools, and increased local control of the remaining district schools.

If this is a case of desperate times calling for desperate measures, we should at least get some perspective on where we’ve been — and how we got here — before we plow ahead.

Consider the Philadelphia School District of a century ago. The city’s population then, and the number of students in its public schools, were about the same as they are today. The birthrate was higher, though, which suggests that many school-age children were not enrolled in school. Those who were had to contend with underfunded, understaffed programs and crowded, poorly maintained facilities. Sound familiar?

On top of that, teachers’ salaries were the lowest among the country’s large cities. Philadelphia was a one-party (Republican) town then, too, and teaching positions were patronage jobs acquired on the basis of connections with ward bosses (a not-so-good version of “local control”). Academic qualifications mattered little. Once hired, teachers were required to kick back a percentage of their meager pay to the party machine. And they often had to purchase textbooks for students with their own money.

Capacity was so limited that a third of the student body — more than 50,000 pupils — could attend school only half-time. Another couple of thousand were on waiting lists, unable to attend at all.

There were, in short, no “good old days” for the Philadelphia School District. In the early 20th century, the city was an industrial powerhouse, with plenty of financial and intellectual capital. Still, it lacked the will to invest in high-quality education for all its children.

Not much has changed. The schools today face cuts in programs and personnel, decrepit facilities, safety problems, and corruption scandals. Teachers still use their own money to purchase supplementary materials for the classroom. Thousands of students are chronically late or absent, and therefore de facto part-timers.

In the 21st century, Philadelphia’s low attendance and high dropout rates have led some to blame the students and their parents for not valuing education sufficiently. But if the district’s families bear some responsibility for its problems, it’s no more than they did a hundred years ago. In those days, parents often kept their children out of school so they could work in the city’s factories and shops, or stay at home and take care of their younger siblings.

In 1912, unlike today, the district’s population was more than 90 percent white — largely Irish, Italian, Russian, Polish, and German. But the populations served by the district over the decades have always lacked the economic and political clout to force the city to provide better schools. In 2012, Lower Merion, just beyond the city limits, spends almost twice as much per student as Philadelphia does.

Of course, there were and are bright spots in the city’s schools. Today, they include some high-performing elementary schools, old gems such as Central High, and individual teachers whose passion and dedication are inspiring.

The latest overhaul plan is worth a try. Charters at least offer some curricular variety, and decentralization of the remaining district schools might encourage more local input and participation. The system won’t collapse. But as long as education is locally funded, it will continue to struggle.

Grant Calder teaches history at Friends’ Central School. He can be reached at gcalder@friendscentral.org.

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