ELEPHANT CORNER: Philly Schools Hit Their Own Fiscal Cliff

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The “fiscal cliff” and the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn. have been first and foremost in the news and deservedly so. While these issues have kept the closing of 37 public schools off the front page of many periodicals, they have not reduced the tone of the controversy.

Earlier this month, the new Philadelphia Public School District SUPERINTENDENT WILLIAM HITE announced the District would be closing 37 schools by Jun. 30, 2013. Since the announcement, a number of groups have taken issue with the proposed action for a myriad of reasons, including the prospect of teacher layoffs, and a belief the cost savings do not warrant the disruptive effect upon students. But the fact remains the school system is at 67% capacity.

The problem is not that the City is closing these schools this year, but that it should have been doing so over the past 15 years. From 1990 to 2000, the City of Philadelphia lost one-quarter of its population and the school system lost roughly 70,000 students. We should have started consolidating schools incrementally over time and not waited for a financial crisis to do so.

There is no denying that transferring students to new schools will be disruptive. Students may need to travel further and may not be welcome by students (at least initially) at new schools. HELEN GYM of Parents United for Public Schools stated, “University City HS [students] cannot waltz into Overbrook or Sayre without a problem.” What she did not mention is that University City is failing academically and a dangerous place. Can it really be worse for these students elsewhere? The schools on the closure list for the most part are among the poorer-performing schools in the system.

Many complain that the expected savings of $24 million per annum from these school closures is only a small portion of the school system’s estimated deficit of roughly $300 million. This is true. But I ask why we should be spending money on empty space at all. We should be spending money on students and programs for the children, not on the overhead of underutilized buildings and salaries for administrators at underpopulated schools.

Others complain the closures would not be happening if the Corbett Administration had not cut spending on education and if the City could allocate more funds to the schools. There is one problem with this argument, and that is a large part of the “funding cuts” was owing to decreased federal stimulus funding. Even if we could increase state funding, the same question prevails – why would we spend this money on empty seats?

Gym and others complain that part of the problem is charter schools. She noted the 5,000 charter-school seats approved by the School Reform Commission will cost $139 million over a five-year period. I am not really sure where she found this number, but the Commonwealth Foundation estimates the education of a charter-school student in Philadelphia costs roughly $2,000 per student less than it would to educate that child in a traditional public school. Also from 2011 Commonwealth Foundation data, we estimate the School District retains roughly 35% of what it would have spent on each child that is sent to a charter.

The teachers’ union and others complain school closures will result in teacher layoffs. This is true. However, it should be noted many of these teachers from the closing schools will be need to help with expanding classes in other schools. The people who will not be needed are the administrators from the closing schools.

Unfortunately, the students may not benefit from the teacher layoffs, because the retained educators will not be the higher-performing teachers but the ones with more tenure.

We are failing our children, and the problem is not a lack of funding or the allocation of funds to charter schools. District schools, according to the Notebook, graduate roughly 60% of high-school students within six years of their freshman year. The city’s charter schools are at 75% and the Archdiocese’s rate is over 90%. Additionally, over 92% of the Archdiocese’s students go on to post-secondary education.

Not only do many School District graduates never obtain a high-school degree, those who do may not have the skills to work in the real world. According to a study funded by the Pew Foundation, only 57% and 51% of the School District’s students are proficient in math and reading respectively. The charter and Catholic schools are doing a better job with less money per student.

This debate over school closings in my opinion highlights the need for more school choice, not empty seats in failing public schools.

The herd offers its condolences to the family of long-time Republican activist and 12TH WARD LEADER LINDA WOLFE BATEMAN. Linda suffered heart failure brought on by complications from a long fight with cancer. She is survived by five children. The date of a memorial service will be announced shortly.

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