Philly schools’ No. 1 problem is too few state dollars

     Pennsylvania's capitol building (AP photo/Carolyn Kaster, file)

    Pennsylvania's capitol building (AP photo/Carolyn Kaster, file)

    Chris Satullo rightly laments the tragedy of Philadelphia’s school funding crisis. But by focusing on feuds and the bad behavior of various stakeholders, he loses focus on the core issue.

    The Commonwealth refuses to fund our schools adequately. That’s not just a big problem, or the main problem: Until it’s addressed, it’s the only problem that matters.

    Gov. Corbett is starving the schools because he’s beholden to an uncompromising anti-government ideology. The Tea Party wave that carried him into office in 2010 was bankrolled by wealthy, fanatically libertarian conservatives who see taxation, government action and public education as social ills, and who view social inequality as a sign of a healthy economy and a moral society.

    I’m sure Satullo would agree. Yet he casts the crisis in terms of poor job performance and individual bias: Gov. Corbett hasn’t “stirred himself” to tax natural-gas extraction, and his budget chief harbors a grudge against the teachers union.

    This view puts the Commonwealth’s actions on the same level as those of the teachers union, whose interests Satullo says don’t necessarily align with those of their students; of parents, whom he accuses of being “enmeshed” with the union; and of city leaders, whom he accuses of “feuding” because they disagree about the best method for ensuring the schools can open next month.

    These are valid topics, but they’re largely irrelevant to this crisis. Sometimes union contracts and work rules cause fiscal problems. But Philadelphia’s teachers make very little money, working harder for less than most of us. They’ve been making do with insufficient resources and terrible district governance for years. There’s very little left for them to give up or give back.

    And despite the negative connotations of the word “enmeshed,” parents simply agree with the teachers: Funding, not education reform, is the issue here. A common interest isn’t a sign that parents have lost their powers of rational or independent thought.

    Poor schools, no tax base

    If the governor and his fellow supply siders want Philadelphia to fund schools by expanding its tax base, Harrisburg first must ensure an adequate supply of safe, quality public education. Before they’re workers, executives, consumers, business owners or investors, people with kids are parents. Without a stable educational system, the city can’t draw new businesses and people to generate new revenue. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if someone has cut them off.

    I’m confident Chris Satullo shares this perspective. But his commentary doesn’t get the point across as clearly as it could because he’s too busy positioning himself as the Last Reasonable Man in the crisis. This isn’t a unique approach, especially among educated members of the chattering classes. I should know: I’m sort of an adjunct member myself.

    But what does this way of looking at the school funding crisis have to do with what kids need? Glad you asked. As for the answer … I don’t know what to say.

    Matt Ruben lives in the Northern Liberties section of Philadelphia. His commentary was submitted in response to commentary from WHYY Vice President for News And Civic Dialoge Chris Satullo titled “So many wrong steps led us all to this Philly schools mess.” 

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