Philadelphia schools are failing. Students are not reading at grade level. Some classes are so overcrowded, children are sitting on window sills. Libraries have been shuttered. Art, music, advanced foreign language classes, and programs for the gifted have been dropped. The district hasn’t been able to balance its budget in decades. It blames the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers for its fiscal crisis. Supposedly, they want too much.
Meanwhile, just across the county line, student test scores are above national averages. Buildings are new. Libraries are well stocked. There are state-of-the-art computers, well equipped art and ceramics studios, jewelry and metal workshops, and athletic programs that produce stars like Kobe Bryant. Teachers’ salaries are 19 percent higher than in Philadelphia. No one is accusing them of greed, and the district always manages to balance its budget.
Why do schools improve dramatically just by crossing City Avenue?
“There is no reason for a child born in Overbrook to receive a lower-quality education than a child born a half-mile away,” said Jonathan A. Saidel, attorney, CPA and former city comptroller for 16 years. Case in point, Lower Merion Township spends twice as much per student as Philadelphia.
Poor kids are clearly receiving a poorer education.
Cut the real waste: school administration
“No one is accepting responsibility,” Saidel said. “Every year the SRC and superintendent create a budget. Every year there’s a deficit. Then, they go to the city and state who, in turn, say it’s not my fault, I didn’t create your budget. The system is doomed.
“I would cut to the bone. I’d eliminate everything that is not directly related to teachers, students, materials and buildings.”
Would that include teachers’ benefits and pensions?
“No,” said Saidel, “that’s not where the real waste is occurring. It’s in the administration.”
Superintendent William Hite’s annual salary is $270,000. (This is, notably, less than predecessors Arlene Ackerman, $348,000, and Paul Vallas, $285,000.) The Philadelphia School District confirms that the seven assistant superintendents each make $145,000, for a combined $1,015,000 annually. The District’s budget director, who hasn’t yet been able to balance the books, makes $128,724. 395 District employees make over $100,000 each — none are teachers.
Reform funding sources
However, Saidel is quick to point out that it’s simplistic to place blame on any one cause. Of greater concern is the need to create an equitable source of school funding.
“Local real estate taxes are not a proper way to fund education. Those days are gone,” he said, noting that 25 percent of Philadelphia’s land mass is tax exempt.
Saidel’s comments echo those of PFT president Jerry Jordan, who, at last week’s SRC meeting, accused the district of not looking to big business, banks, corporate welfare, and nonprofits who take advantage of tax abatements. SRC chairman Bill Green snapped back, “The SRC doesn’t have taxing authority.”
According to Saidel, perhaps it should.
“We, as individuals have responsibility for every child in Pennsylvania to get a quality education. It should not be based on the value of your house,” he said. “Our system of taxation is not equitable. It’s based on Puritan ethics. Our state constitution is part of the problem.”
Saidel believes the source of the problem is the way public schools are funded, not just in Philadelphia, but throughout Pennsylvania. Does that mean higher taxes?
“I would be happy to pay more taxes if I knew the money was going for public education,” he said.
A fundamental right — and a responsibility
Looking out over the city from the 29th floor of the law offices of Cohen, Placitella & Roth, Saidel remembers when the District did what it was supposed to do: provide a high-quality education for all children, rich or poor, black or white.
“I was a poor kid,” he said.”I was something of a juvenile delinquent. The public school system saved me.”
Saidel ranks public education as a top national priority. “Public education is as important as our armed forces. It’s necessary for a democracy. You have to have people who can read the Constitution. An uneducated population can lead to dictatorship.”
He also stated that education is necessary to create a workforce and build new businesses to compete with China.
He is quick to point out the down side of providing high-quality education just for rich kids.
“There aren’t enough of them, and they’ll have to pay for all the others,” Saidel said. “The divide now isn’t just about race. It’s about class.”
And charter schools won’t solve the problem. “They only serve children of committed parents, and they exclude kids with behavioral problems,” said Saidel. His answer: “The bureaucracy needs to be destroyed.”
“The time for the SRC is past. We need to bring the schools back to local control with state involvement.” Does that mean he welcomes the return of an elected school board? No. “I’d like to see a Secretary of Education who reports directly to the Mayor and City Council,” he said.
While Saidel’s recommendation is unlikely to be embraced anytime soon, it raises a fundamental question. Does public education, by definition, mean an equal education for all children, rich or poor?