In March, Philadelphia’s state-operated school district filed an extraordinary legal complaint with the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The lawsuit asks the Court to approve changes in school staffing levels and the way teachers are transferred and laid off, effectively nullifying portions of a collective bargaining agreement between the Philadelphia School District and the teachers union.
Much attention has focused on the district’s request for changes in teacher staffing and work rules. But unnoticed is the district’s stark admission of the deplorable conditions that Philadelphia’s school children must endure after 17 years of direct state control over their education.
In the court filing, the district says it wants to ease lay-off and transfer rules caused by an “unprecedented gap” between available funding and what’s needed just to maintain services at “prior year” levels. The district then describes the services it hopes to maintain, levels so palpably inadequate as to fall far below even minimum education standards.
The complaint details the sub-basic education programs and support services now in district-operated schools. The district describes teacher and support staff as “bare bones,” at levels “20 percent smaller than the year before and 33 percent than just three years ago.” The district concedes it has made “very steep” layoffs, a one-third reduction in employees in just three years, leaving schools with “barely adequate” staffing.
The district goes on to catalogue a parade of resource deficits plaguing the system: over 40 schools with no guidance counselor of its own; three-fourths of schools with no librarian assistant; and “significant cuts” to instructional materials and supplies, enrichment opportunities for students, extracurricular activities, administrative support and school cleaning services. And, of course, as parents of Philadelphia children know all too well: closing 24 neighborhood public schools.
The complaint also acknowledges the “short supply” of school nurses, a fact familiar to Philadelphians in light of the deaths of two young students in schools lacking a full-time nurse in recent months.
Even more remarkable, the district pinpoints the state’s $300 million aid cut in 2011-12 as being at the “root” of these serious deficiencies. And the district presents no evidence that the relief it asks for — making teacher layoffs and transfers easier — will generate any real budgetary savings. The district doesn’t offer the Court a plan for bringing teacher and support staff back to reasonable levels, reducing class size, providing interventions to struggling students, and keeping neighborhood schools open, safe and clean.
The district’s filing is the legal equivalent of asking the Supreme Court for permission to rearrange deck chairs on a fast-sinking ship.
What the district’s complaint avoids is stating the obvious: the abject failure to provide city students with the basic resources necessary to achieve Pennsylvania’s own academic standards. And the reason why is also obvious: The school district — and the entire state — is engaged in an ongoing and severe violation the right of Philadelphia students to a “thorough and efficient” education under the Pennsylvania Constitution.
Aside from the school district, the state and the teachers union, Philadelphia school children are not represented before the Court. At a minimum, the Court should appoint special counsel to represent their fundamental interest at stake in the case: the opportunity for an education to prepare them for productive employment and engaged citizenship.
It is also imperative that the Court, in considering the lawsuit, direct the District and State Education Department produce a substantive, concrete plan of action to promptly address the severe deprivation of basic resources endemic in Philadelphia’s State-operated schools.
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court is the last-resort guarantor of the right of Philadelphia children to a constitutional education. The evidence in the district’s complaint is overwhelming: Education in Philadelphia schools is neither thorough nor efficient. The state, through the school district and the Department of Education in Harrisburg, has utterly failed these children. It’s now up to the Court to act on their behalf.
David Sciarra is executive director of Education Law Center, Newark, N.J.