From teacher shortages to funding, Philly superintendent discusses district’s current challenges in one-on-one interview with WHYY News

During an interview with WHYY News on MLK's legacy in education, Superintendent Watlington discusses what challenges the district currently faces.

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A close-up photo of Tony B. Watlington Sr. speaking.

File photo: School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Tony B. Watlington Sr. speaks at a press conference on August 12, 2022. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

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Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. advocated for education and believed it was the great equalizer. King preached that education could eliminate discrimination and create a more equitable society. And as celebrations kick off across the country in honor of the civil rights leader, many remember the impact his legacy carries today. School District of Philadelphia Superintendent Dr. Tony Watlington says Dr. King’s message is needed now more than ever.

“He wanted our students in public schools to get a good education,” said Watlington.

Watlington expressed the importance of King’s vision for education. “Dr. King, at the time of his death, was leading a poor people’s campaign, and he says it makes no sense to have the world’s largest economy, and too many people of color not be able to participate.”

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But even today, funding has made it hard to realize that dream. Education in Pennsylvania has seen its battles. After the courts determined that the schools are underfunded, the Basic Education Funding Commission released a new report that says it will take 5.4 billion dollars to improve the low-wealth schools in Pennsylvania.

Watlington thought it would be a part of King’s dream to see schools properly funded. He wanted every student to have equal access to a good education.

He said, “When we get the appropriate funding that the commonwealth court has called for, we will be able to have much better school facilities and upgrade the school facilities so our children can learn in 21st-century schools that say ‘we value public education.’”

One of the challenges schools are facing now is teacher shortages. Watlington says the district and other schools nationwide are having difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers.

“We’ll be able to invest more resources and help to make sure that our students have the very best teachers and be able to tackle this declining teacher pipeline, which has declined by 50% percent nationally and almost 60-70% here in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania,” said Watlington.

Despite the economic challenges, Watlington says teacher and student attendance is up, along with test scores.

“We improved in 13 out of 17 academic areas, as measured by academic test scores,” said Watlington.

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He says all hope is not lost. As a Black leader in education, Watlington says King’s legacy lives on through a new generation.

“I think the fact that you’ve got a Black woman mayor, Black superintendent, Black commissioner, I think all of these are a result of that hard long fought and continuing struggle that Dr. King and others have led, and we all know it’s crystal clear that we have a lot more work to do.”

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