In Philadelphia’s education crisis, who is harmed?

    Students are shown arriving for class at South Philadelphia High School. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    Students are shown arriving for class at South Philadelphia High School. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

    For years now, an ongoing budget crisis has plagued the Philadelphia School District, with disastrous repercussions to students and faculty. In the continued insolvency of the District can be heard echoes of the efforts in our nation’s history to deny education and opportunity to poor and African-American communities.

    Two years ago, 23 Philadelphia public schools, or 10 percent of all public schools in the city, were shut down in response to a crippling budget deficit. The New York Times reported that police arrested 19 protesters at the contested sites.

    That same year, I followed the story of the severe cutbacks in departmental funding in the remaining schools, nicknamed “the doomsday budget.” These cuts included mass faculty layoffs, reduction of materials and athletics programs, and the complete elimination of arts and music programs.

    Despite these cuts, and despite the allocation of an increased cigarette tax to education last year, the budget problem persists. In December, Superintendent William Hite announced that because of the state budget gridlock, the district would only be able to make payroll until the end of January, after which city schools faced shutdown.

    In any such crisis, it is worth examining the exact effect upon the citizens. Who ultimately pays for these shortages in funding?

    Troubling trends and repurcussions

    When Superintendent Hite released the names of the schools to be closed in 2013, a notable trend emerged. Among those on the chopping block were Germantown High School, Strawberry Mansion High School, University City High School, and Edward W. Bok Technical High — all institutions in middle- to working-class areas with large African-American student populations.

    African-American families have long been disproportionately concentrated in lower-income communities, as a result of the massive wealth inequality stemming from Jim Crow segregation and America’s early reliance on slave labor. This in turn has relegated black students to lower-access facilities, which are apparently most vulnerable to closure.

    History also shows that these incongruities follow from a long tradition of educational disenfranchisement sown as deep in our soil as the political system itself. American lawmakers have made deliberate and systematic efforts to deprive the black community of the same access to education that has been readily available to the white community.

    The strategic withholding of education from people of African descent was established in the period of institutionalized slavery, when black slaves risked serious punishment if they were caught reading or holding a Bible study group. During this period in the American South, primary education was generally only privately accessible to the children of wealthy landowners, which began to create a disparity at the foundation of American society.

    During reconstruction, public education facilities were established for African-American children and the white working class on the strict condition of racial segregation. Naturally, schools that were designated for black students routinely received significantly less funding than their white counterparts.

    Almost a century and a half later, these early steps to disadvantage black students continue to have troubling repercussions. A study by US News & World Report last year showed that African-American children begin to feel the effects of a lack of stress on education as early as two years of age, due to a lack of educational benefits passed on from generation to generation.

    So it is that the reverberations of the active denial of education to the black community and financial deprivation of black institutions have perpetuated an education gap between African-Americans and the majority population. The gutting and closure of predominantly black schools widens the gap.

    Schools vs. prisons

    Meanwhile, the areas where financial resources are allotted in the midst of the crisis speaks to the system’s priorities. While these closures forced the community’s children into overcrowded classrooms in the remaining facilities — one inevitable consequence of such austerity measures — many critics have noted that policy makers did manage to open a $400 million prison. The Associated Press reported that it was “the second most expensive facility ever built by the commonwealth, exceeded only by the Pennsylvania Convention Center.”

    Leading intellectuals such as Cornell West and Michael Eric Dyson have long been critical of the disastrous influence of privatized prisons on the African-American community throughout the country. To the minds of these and other social critics, the defunding of schools and other productive public works alongside the increasing abundance of prisons is no coincidence. Closing down schools and opening up prisons, it seems, is an effective means of keeping a people in the position of the underclass.

    Studies by the Pennsylvania Education Law Center support this school-to-prison correlation. According to the Center, Pennsylvania cut $961 million from its school budget while adding $871 million to its prison budget. The studies also note “zero-tolerance policies, aggressive policing in schools, and other extreme school discipline practices,” especially such policies that “fuel systemic inequalities … based on race, gender, perceived sexual orientation, disability status, or other categories.” These financial inequities and exclusionary discipline practices have had the effect of funneling students, in particular minority students, out of their schools and into correctional facilities and the criminal justice system.

    So much at stake

    These trends threaten to continue across the state and nation, and Philadelphia is in the thick of the situation. Central in the dispute is the wide establishment of charter schools in the region, with many district schools being converted into charters. Last month, the district’s School Progress Report announced that 80 percent of both district and charter schools fell into the lowest performance tiers.

    Philadelphians are not taking these changes lying down. Mass protests of the closures and charter conversions have been staged with increasing momentum, directing much of their frustration toward Superintendent Hite.

    This type of pressure will no doubt have some impact. But if the last several years have been any indicator, opponents of the mismanagement of our public education have a long uphill battle before them. Many interests are at play. And the shape of our society with be forged in the fire of that debate.

    Bessam Idani is the head staff writer for Omaat.org (One Miracle at at Time), a nonprofit and arts media group. He is also a contributor to the current events commentary site Political Moll. Bessam holds a master’s degree in English literature from Arcadia University as well as a bachelor’s degree in French studies from SUNY Albany. He currently resides in Philadelphia.

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