Would you invest in a business whose product failed 80% of the time? If so, you might want to contribute money to the City of Philadelphia School District where, according to the Commonwealth Foundation, studies show that percentage of students cannot read or do math at grade level.
In what has become an annual tradition fiscal hysteria is radiating out from the City of Brotherly Love with predictions of dire consequences for the local populace if Harrisburg does not pony up more dollars. The annual crisis seems to swing back and forth between trains and subways will stop running if more money isn't allocated to mass transit, or schools won't open without additional funding.
This is the year for schools.
Once again the mismanagement which runs rampant throughout the Philadelphia city school system has resulted in a beginning of the school year budget crunch that has administrators claiming hundreds of teachers will be laid off if the state legislature does not approve a new revenue stream. Bureaucracies looking for more money always cut first that which will inflict the most pain to gin up a public outcry. That is why teachers, not administrators and support staff, are on the chopping block.
The imminent start of the school year comes as no surprise to anyone, it is as predictable as Philadelphia funding crises, yet the highly paid administration of the school system failed to make the tough budget decisions necessary to begin the new term on time and on financially solid footing. Instead, they assumed Harrisburg would once again — as it always does — come up with the money for them.
This year's scheme to fund the failing schools involved levying an additional $2.00 per pack tax on cigarettes sold in the city. Philadelphia lawmakers dutifully spun a tale of dire consequences without the new funding and almost managed to get it enacted. But, the bill hit a bump in the road and the legislature left town for a summer vacation that will last until well after the new school year begins.
After a planned rare August session of the state house fell through, Philadelphia's city schools were left hanging. And so the cries of woe rang out from the banks of the Delaware River. Governor Tom Corbett, facing an uphill re-election battle, rode to the rescue by delivering budgeted state dollars early, thus allowing schools to open on time.
But should the governor have done that? And should the general assembly approve the cigarette tax? The other 499 school districts in Pennsylvania all will start the school year on time. They too have faced budget challenges and managed to get the job done without running to Harrisburg for special taxes. Like a spoiled teenager who constantly wrecks the family car, perhaps the time has come to take the keys away from Philadelphia city schools.
The bottom line is Philadelphia's city school system does not have a revenue problem, it has a spending problem. The Commonwealth Foundation reports that revenue in the school district has increased by more than $1 billion since the 2002-2003 school year. Per pupil spending has jumped 21% in inflation-adjusted dollars during that time frame. And here is the kicker: enrollment has dropped by 25% while the teaching staff has increased 6%.
Not only has the school district continued its profligate spending, but like most school districts it has resisted the types of structural change needed to bring both fiscal stability and academic success to public education. Philadelphia's lawmakers, while extending their hands for more tax dollars universally refuse to back pension reform so the single biggest cost driver can be brought under control. The city is hostile to charter and cyber charter schools which would provide a pathway out of a failed public school system for many students.
It is now time for some tough love. So long as Harrisburg is willing to bail them out Philadelphia city schools will constantly be asking for more money. The governor and the general assembly should require them to make needed structural reforms before giving them another cent in revenue. Otherwise, the summertime saga of more money for Philadelphia will continue to be an annual rite.
(Lowman S. Henry is Chairman CEO of the Lincoln Institute and host of the Lincoln Radio Journal. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.)
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