City schools' real problem

Posted: August 09, 2012

By Baruch Kintisch

Local and state education officials have been pretending that school results are independent of school resources - that children can swim in a pool that's been drained. Policymakers have focused on test scores, restructuring plans, and other outwardly visible factors. But they don't seem to be asking the more fundamental questions: What resources do Philadelphia children need to succeed? And how can we give those resources to every child?

Learning happens when skilled, experienced teachers execute well-prepared lesson plans, when every student has a current textbook, and when classrooms have adequate space, heat, and air-conditioning. Children who have disabilities, are learning English, or are living in foster care or homeless shelters are more likely to thrive with additional special staff and services. And the modern economy requires students to learn research skills in up-to-date libraries, science skills in fully-equipped laboratories, and computer skills in advanced technology centers.

So we shouldn't be surprised when children in the Philadelphia School District struggle to learn without these things. District funding cuts since 2010-11, amounting to about $1,300 per student per year, have led to the elimination of tutoring programs, courses, support services, and other educational basics. A visit to a school in a wealthy suburban district will show stark contrasts in both inputs and outcomes.

But instead of addressing these real shortcomings in our public schools, too many local and state leaders are focused on external issues. Recent newspaper headlines in Philadelphia refer to test scores and cheating principals, charter vs. district-run schools, and plans for closing school buildings.

No one seems truly interested in dealing with the underlying problems: The city's schools are underfunded; classrooms are crowded; libraries, labs, and special-education services are outdated or nonexistent; and teachers are underpaid and under-supported, leading many to leave for properly funded suburban schools.

Basic deficiencies

Consider some facts about our public schools, based on data from the state Department of Education for the most recent years available:

Compared with school districts in Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties, each Philadelphia classroom received an average of $50,000 less in funding in 2009-10, and this gap increased by $28,000 in recent years.

Philadelphia teachers are paid 13 percent less to teach 17 percent more students than their colleagues in the surrounding suburbs.

The Philadelphia School District has nearly 163,000 students who have disabilities, are learning English, or are from poor families, making up 78 percent of enrollment. This is much higher than in neighboring counties, leading to significant additional costs.

Nearly every public school in Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties has a library with certified staff, which has been proven to increase student reading and comprehension. In contrast, most public schools in Philadelphia do not employ a certified librarian, and more than 140 do not have a library.

These basic deficiencies will not be solved by focusing exclusively on raising test scores, closing buildings, opening more charter schools, blaming teachers, or appointing a new superintendent and School Reform Commission members - regardless of their credentials and talents.

Empty pool

All these issues and dozens more are important and deserve attention. But the energy devoted to external outcomes and results seems to take away from the time and attention needed to address the district's underlying shortage of resources. Improving the proctoring system for standardized testing, for example, will do nothing to close the gap in funding for each classroom, or to provide the educational basics that will help students learn in those classrooms.

All of the city's 192,000 public school students, in both district-run and charter schools, need state and city leaders to pay attention to the lack of resources in the schools. This means more funding from the city and the state. Instead of getting distracted by other things or diverting the public's attention, state and city leaders must attack the funding problem as a top priority.

And Philadelphia is not alone. Similar crises exist in Chester Upland, Upper Darby, York, and other urban, suburban, and rural school districts throughout Pennsylvania. State funding to districts has been cut by more than $1 billion since 2008, in addition to a loss of $655 million in federal stimulus funding. Thirty-three state funding programs have been eliminated, and 18 have been cut. And districts face immense deficits due to rapidly expanding pension costs for retired teachers.

Unless state policymakers change direction in a hurry and focus on providing adequate resources for teaching and learning in every school and for every child, more cuts are on the way for all our public schools. But students, parents, and teachers shouldn't be blamed for failing to swim when our leaders have emptied the pool.

Baruch Kintisch is director of policy advocacy for the Education Law Center.

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