Karen Heller: Not investing in Pa. students now will cost us later

Posted: May 20, 2013

We're in budget season, which means the city school district is experiencing yet another round of asking for money from local and state governments that have grown inured to the perpetual crisis, as common a sign of spring as azaleas.

In Harrisburg, donor fatigue has set in, a weariness to throw more millions at the perpetual well of need with little to show. And there is little love.

Certainly, the Democratic city has given the Republican-controlled state legislature plenty of ammunition. While exhibiting some progress, the schools remain, for the most part, pretty lousy. Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. conceded last week that the rest of the state views Philadelphia schools "as a cesspool."

The late Arlene Ackerman's imperial follies and quixotic budget planning, coupled with an embattled School Reform Commission, did considerable harm, especially after misspending stimulus dollars on non-stimulus enterprises.

Meanwhile, the city has a wretched record on property-tax collection. We lead the nation in tax delinquency, half a billion dollars uncollected for the city and beleaguered schools.

Mayor Nutter can make decisions at a geriatric pace. He waited too long to install capable school leadership. Incredulously, he waited until his fifth year in office to appoint a tax-collection czar - and only after The Inquirer and PlanPhilly's Patrick Kerkstra exposed the magnitude of the crisis that has worsened during his administration.

"They didn't need two arguments against Philly in Harrisburg," said Donna Cooper, director of Public Citizens for Children and Youth and policy director under Gov. Ed Rendell. "And now we've given those arguments to them on a silver platter."

Philadelphia is not alone in this struggle. Virtually every Pennsylvania school district with a sizable poor population needs additional funding, largely because Gov. Corbett never restored the draconian education cuts that the federal stimulus temporarily filled. Hite is asking for money that was once there. (And city residents send plenty of revenue to state coffers through income, sales, and other taxes.)

Hite has shown he means business, shuttering 31 schools, and continuing to reduce central administration so that it is now half the size it was under Ackerman. Last week, the superintendent promised to attempt to end teacher seniority in the coming union contract, a smart move that will further reduce costs. The plan also appeases Republican legislators, who immediately welcomed the news. (For his part, Nutter came up with yet another round of sin taxes, cigarettes and cocktails, libations for learning.)

The real problem is that the school district's request for $120 million is $30 million more than the proposed increase in basic education budget for the entire state.

We either invest in our children now, or pay for that mistake later in increased costs for social services, policing, and prisons. Philadelphia has the highest percentage of poor people of any major U.S. city. Our top goal should be to change that. We need to move more people out of poverty and into good jobs with benefits. Education is the clearest path, the greatest economic-development investment we can make.

Pennsylvania is spending $400 million on two enormous correctional facilities at Graterford, money that would be far better spent on children, potential future taxpayers who would help support stronger schools.

As Hite said: "In a time of shared sacrifice, who should bear the most? We reject the idea that it should be our students and hope that you will again invest in resources to do the very best by our children."


Contact Karen Heller at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com. Follow her at @kheller on Twitter. Read the metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.inquirer.com/blinq.

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