News stories

Public education under attack

Philly schools on the brink

Crammed classes, dearth of supplies and severe cuts now the norm in City of Brotherly Love

Protesters wrap around the block at the rally in August to fully fund education At Amy Kaufman’s school in Philadelphia, teachers this year were given no money for supplies and, so far, too few textbooks to go around. There is one teacher’s manual shared by seven 2nd-grade teachers and, in some classes, one book for 30 students.

Budget cuts also killed the school’s previously thriving after-school program and have over three years led to a loss of 13 staff, causing many classes to swell in size to more than 30 students.

It’s worse at the high school where Kaufman’s husband teaches, which has a history class with 45 students. The high school where her brother-in-law works takes the cake: Some classes there have 54.

“It’s been difficult for the staff in my school to accomplish their goals for their students and to help them succeed with so many kids and a lack of materials,” Kaufman said. “How are we supposed to improve our students’ skills and their test scores when we’re already starting at a disadvantage?”

Crammed classes, a dearth of supplies and severe program cuts are now the norm in Philadelphia.

The district earlier this year laid off nearly 4,000 school staff and closed 23 schools — 10 percent of the total — displacing about 10,000 students. Around 1,000 staffers were subsequently rehired. But the district now has no school librarians, no guidance counselors at schools with fewer than 600 students and only one school nurse per 1,600 students.

The school district, the fifth-largest in the country, is in full-fledged crisis. And the crisis is no accident, many say.

Pennsylvania’s Republican governor, Tom Corbett, has cut $800 million from the state’s education budget in just two years. The state is now 42nd in the nation in education funding.

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers spokesman George Jackson said Corbett’s actions amount to a systematic divestment from public education. “You can lay 90 percent of the crisis or more at the feet of Gov. Corbett,” Jackson said.

But even before Corbett, Philadelphia suffered under more than a decade of general mismanagement by the state commission put in charge of the school system in 2001, critics say. The commission was supposed to get the district’s finances in order. Instead it drove Philadelphia’s schools into the ground, union members and representatives say.

Philadelphia can’t afford to bail out the school system, but Corbett could. Instead, the governor is spending $400 million to build a new prison in the city.

Adding insult to injury, Corbett is also sitting on $50 million in federal aid meant for the city’s schools. He says he will release it only if the union, whose contract expired at the end of August, accepts salary cuts of between 5 and 13 percent in addition to equally draconian cuts to benefits.

The governor, along with Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, also wants the union to agree to limits on seniority and tenure, a longer workday and a new evaluation system.

Philly schools on the brinkPollsters from the Pew Charitable Trusts asked Philadelphia residents who is most responsible for the school-funding crisis. The graph above shows the poll results. In an opinion piece in the Philadelphia Inquirer, teachers’ union President Jerry Jordan took aim at the mayor for attacking rather than working with the union to solve the crisis.

“Rather than keep the focus on a conversation about how to increase revenue for schools (and whom to hold accountable for this mess), our mayor instead wants to shift more attention to work rules in the PFT contract,” he wrote. “To focus on work rule reforms when our schools can’t afford copy paper is an irresponsible distraction from what really matters.”

Fourth-grade teacher Trina Dean, from the Thomas Misslin Elementary School in northwest Philadelphia, knows what really matters: that her class is packed with 41 students, well above the limit in the union contract.

“Students aren’t getting the individual attention they deserve,” Dean said. “There isn’t enough room for students to move around. I have 40 desks in my room — there’s not enough room for anything.”

“If they don’t fund public education now, we’ll pay for it later,” she said.

Read more: News stories
Related topics: budget
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