Time to declare a state of emergency in Philly schools

Philadelphia School District headquarters (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

Philadelphia School District headquarters (Emma Lee/WHYY, file)

It is time to stop sentencing thousands of Philadelphia’s children to a lifetime of poverty and despair, thanks to public schools that offer them virtually no chance at a successful life.

It is time to stop defending a racist status quo that enables academic segregation: Philadelphia’s wealthy, mostly white children continue to get the best education money can buy, while poor children, many of whom are African-American or Hispanic, are consigned to failing schools that are little more than way stations on the road to a lifetime of joblessness, low income, and misery.

It is time to declare that “a state of emergency” exists in our schools for children living in poverty. As a citizenry, we must demand excellent schools in Philadelphia and throughout Pennsylvania. All children, not just some of them, deserve a high-quality education.

And before you conclude that this is somehow a push for charter schools over traditional district schools, let me be as clear as possible: charter or district, union or non-union, it doesn’t matter.  There are great district and charter schools in our city, and there are awful district and charter schools, too. We need to support great schools and help them thrive; and we need to fix or close schools that don’t provide our children with a high-quality education.

Let’s stop getting sidetracked in arguments about charters vs. district schools, and focus instead on the state of emergency that threatens our future: Too many children are stranded in schools that don’t work, and if we don’t fix the problem we will suffer the consequences for decades to come.

Look at the facts:

According to the state Department of Education’s annual School Performance Profile, more than 15,000 children are stranded in Philadelphia schools that are failing (scoring below 40 on the SPP). Even more troubling is the racial math: 70 percent of the children in these schools are African-American, and 79 percent live in poverty.  

Under the circumstances, is it any wonder that charter schools are growing? When it comes to finding good schools for their children, more and more parents are voting with their feet and fleeing district schools for any better alternative.

At the same time, there are more than 8,000 students in high-performing district neighborhood schools, where the racial math is no less troubling: The student population at these schools is only 16 percent African American, and 47 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Citywide, if you take out the special admission schools (Masterman, Central, and a few others), just 36 percent of district grads go on to college.

Let’s cut to the chase: If wealthy white parents were faced with the same school options that confront poor people, does anyone seriously believe that failing schools would be tolerated in any Philadelphia neighborhood?

Of course not.  

So let’s fix the problem. The recent dissolution of the School Reform Commission presents us with a perfect opportunity to do so. We can start by selecting new school board candidates who recognize the crisis and are committed to providing equal access to high-quality education.

But first, let’s keep the pressure on our leaders to publicly acknowledge the problem and commit to fixing it. It starts with demanding fair treatment for all children, especially kids living in hellish conditions that, by conventional wisdom, make student achievement impossible.

We are in a state of emergency, and we must all fight for our children’s future.

David Hardy is a senior adviser for the nonprofit Excellent Schools PA. He is the founder and former CEO of Boys Latin Charter School in West Philadelphia. Contact him directly at dhardy@excellentschoolspa.org.

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