One surefire way to wreck a public school system


Phildelphia School Superintendent William Hite  (Matt Rourke/AP)

How do you wreck a public school system?

There are plenty of ways, but right now let’s just focus on one district, the state-run Philadelphia School District, which has been starved for funding by the administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and has been a guinea pig for corporate school reform, with widespread school closures and rapid charter expansion in the past decade.

Things are so bad on the financial front that district officials created a $2.4 billion budget for the next school year with available resources and then urged the state-created School Reform Commission on Thursday night not to pass it.  The Notebook, an independent Web site that covers Philadelphia education, said Superintendent William Hite warned that  the budget was not “educationally sound or economically prudent for the city or the state.”  The Notebook said:

“Running schools this way for another year is unsustainable and does an extreme disservice to our students and our families,” Hite said, his voice betraying his simmering frustration.

The SRC has been accused for a dozen years by public school activists of implementing damaging reforms and accepting hideous budget cuts, including the so-called “Doomsday Budget” it passed last year, which had no funding for things such as paper, counselors, secretaries, librarians and arts/music programs. Under the proposed budget for 2014-15, at least 800 teachers would have to be laid off, class sizes would reach 41, and there would be severe cuts to special education, among other things. But on Thursday, the panel agreed things had gone too far.  SRC Chairman Bill Green was quoted as saying:

“Rather than adopting a ‘Doomsday II’ budget – and give anyone the impression that the cuts it contains are feasible or acceptable – we are going to not act on the budget tonight. Instead, we will continue to focus our energy and attention on securing the needed funding for our schools.”

By refusing to approve the budget, the SRC knowingly violated the Philadelphia City Charter, which calls for an approved public school budget by May 31, the Philadelphia Philadelphia Inquirer said.

Chief Financial Officer Matthew Stanski said that the district needs $2.8 billion “to stop many years of disinvestment” — or, the Notebook said, “an additional $320 million in revenue beyond what it now has in hand to start a process of school improvement and transformation.”  Right now, it said, the Hite administration is seeking “an additional $96 million from the city (which would allow the District to maintain the services it now has), as well as  $150 million from the state, and $95 million in labor concessions.

While school activists thanked the SRC for refusing to approve the budget, many want the commission to be disbanded and the city to again run its own school system. A day before the SRC meeting, members of Pennsylvania Working Families, a grass-roots progressive political organization that fights for the interests of working- and middle-class families, delivered to the City Council a petition with 40,000 petition signatures seeking a referendum be placed on the November ballot that would amend the City Charter to ask the Pennsylvania legislature and governor to end the School Reform Commission.

One special point of interest at the Thursday meeting of the School Reform Commission was the testimony of two school nurses. Budget cuts in recent years have slashed the number of school nurses from 289 to 179;  in January 2012, the District moved to a 1:1500 nurse to student ratio, the maximum allowed by state law, from a 1:750 nurse to student ratio, which still meant the majority of public schools lacked a full-time school nurse. Nurses now cover up to six schools, and some visit each school only once every other week.

Nurse Eileen DiFranco noted that cutting nurses makes no financial sense for any school district, the Inquirer reported:

“Cutting nurses is not a savings… 911 gets called for nosebleeds, for stitches, for things that are not a medical emergency. People do not have the expertise to be able to parse out an emergency for something that’s not run-of-the-mill.”

The two nurses talked about the recent death at a public elementary school of a 7-year-old boy where the part-time nurse was not on campus that day. The boy died from a congenital heart defect, and it is not known whether a nurse could have saved him, but one of the nurses Peg Devine, was quoted by the Inquirer as saying:

“More deaths will occur unless you increase certified nurse presence in Philadelphia schools.”

The boy’s death was the second of a student in a Philadelphia public school where a nurse was not present this school year; in October, a 12-year-old girl who had an asthma attack at school but was not immediately sent home and she died later that day in a hospital. After the death of the boy, Hite said in a statement:

“During times of tragedy, our community should not have to question whether an extra staff member or program would have made a difference. We should all feel confident that our schools have everything they need.”

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | May 31