The public education crisis in the city of Philadelphia is reaching a crescendo as the scheduled opening of the 2013-2014 school year on September 9 nears. Due to the school district's 304 million dollar deficit, the School Reform Commission in Pennsylvania voted in March to close 23 schools in Philadelphia. Additionally, nearly 4,000 district employees including guidance counselors, teachers, assistant principals and other school based staff were given layoff notices. Adding insult to injury, the U.S. House of Representatives slashed $961 million from the education budget this Spring.
School District of Philadelphia Superintendent William Hite initially asked for the state for $60 million, the city for $120 million, and the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for $133 million in the form of various concessions in order to fill the $304 million shortfall. After months of intense negotiations and battles over the deficit, the city of Philadelphia recently announced that it would borrow an additional $50 million just to be able to open the schools at a bare minimum level of operation.
The situation amounts to the starvation of the Philadelphia School District to the severe detriment of children who had nothing to do with creating the problem. Aaron Kase asserted in a recent Salon piece that "the needs of children are secondary, however, to a right-wing governor in Tom Corbett who remains fixated on breaking the district in order to crush the teachers union and divert money to unproven experiments like vouchers and privately run charters. If the city's children are left uneducated and impoverished among the smoldering wreckage of a broken school system, so be it."
Philadelphia is ground zero for the battle over the funding of public education in the United States. A full funding plan for public education in the state of Pennsylvania is needed from the state's government particularly for the city of Philadelphia. An emergency bailout plan for the Philadelphia School District is needed because the current race to the bottom is no longer acceptable. The state's "cut your way to success" strategy is not tenable. The pie must be significantly expanded first at the state level through legislative action. The city, school district, and unions can then negotiate how to divide a pie that can adequately cover all of the Philadelphia's education needs instead of the city's children being forced to survive on crumbs.
The school district should not have to go to drastic measures just to meet bare minimum needs but the focus should be on closing the achievement gap, graduating college and career ready students, and attacking the city's dropout crisis. Recent studies show that graduation rates in the city of Philadelphia have hovered between 50 and 60 percent over the past decade. The economic ripple effects of this dropout crisis are significant. The unemployment rate among individuals without a high school diploma is double the rate of those with a diploma and each dropout represents a $260,000 burden in lost earnings, taxes, and productivity according to the Alliance for Excellent Education.
In response to the city's educational crisis, Education for a Better America (EBA) and National Action Network (NAN) will partner with the City of Philadelphia and Community College of Philadelphia to host a Higher Education Awareness, Dropout Prevention, and Health Initiative on September 14 from 10:30am to 4:00pm. The event will be held in the Great Hall on the campus of the Community College of Philadelphia. The day will feature workshops on college and career readiness, health and wellness, and breaking down the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act as well as remarks from National Action Network President Reverend Al Sharpton, U.S. Congressman Chaka Fattah, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, and School District of Superintendent Dr. William Hite among others. There will also be a talent showcase and fashion show hosted by Sharpton Entertainment.
EBA Board President Dominique Sharpton stated that "the event is part of a nationwide endeavor to increase the pursuit of post-secondary education, increase civic engagement, prevent school dropouts, and promote health and wellness across the country. We want to help bring the community together to deal with the current education crisis. The city has great programs like 'Get Healthy Philly' and 'Philly Goes to College' that need to be maximized at a time like this."
The event is especially critical in Philadelphia given that many schools will likely open on September 9 with no guidance counselors or staff to support dropout prevention or the college admissions and financial aid process. This is troubling given that a high school dropout out is twice as likely to be unemployed and the majority of new jobs that will be created over the next decade will require some type of post-secondary education. EBA's Higher Education, Dropout Prevention, and Health Initiative, which will go to Compton, California on September 28, serves as an opportunity to rise above politics and bolster the connection between communities, schools systems, and colleges in order to help close the opportunity gap in the United States.