The fiscal crisis facing our public schools is being exploited by a movement to privatize public education, break unions and subject students to high-stakes test-prep regimes. But it is a crisis nonetheless — one that requires long-term solutions, immediate band-aids and, critically, a substantial commitment from Philly's largest stakeholders.
As I've reported, the state, whose School Reform Commission (SRC) has controlled Philly schools since 2001, has underfunded poor districts for decades. This fiscal year, Gov. Tom Corbett and the Republican legislature slashed nearly $300 million of Philly's funding. The district now faces a $218 million deficit for the coming year and a $1.1 billion cumulative five-year shortfall.
"We have a dysfunctional conversation here," Republican City Councilman Dennis O'Brien told the SRC last week. "We have a five-year plan [from the district] with no anticipated revenue from the state until 2016 or '17? What the hell is up with that?"
Sure: Corbett probably isn't eager to deliver aid to Philly. But the crisis is statewide: Upper Darby, Harrisburg, York. Philly could lead a movement.
Short-term solutions, though insufficient, are also critical. The city's funding debate has revolved around Mayor Nutter's controversial request that a recalibrated property-tax system pay out an additional $94 million. But deep-pocketed Philadelphia institutions could also help soften the blow. Penn (with a $6.58 billion endowment) hides behind its nonprofit status and pays no property taxes to the city. And unlike nearly every Ivy League school in the country, Penn pays no "payments in lieu of taxes," or PILOTs. In 2005, Harvard agreed to pay Boston $60 million in PILOTs over 20 years; Yale pays about $8.1 million a year to New Haven.
Already, a yearly investment of about $800,000 from Penn has turned West Philly's Penn Alexander School into a shining beacon in the troubled district. Imagine what a few million more dollars could do.
Nutter has said that Act 55, a 1997 state law, stripped the city of its ability to legally challenge nonprofit exemptions, and thus made it impossible to demand PILOTs. But in April, the state Supreme Court ruled that cities could hold nonprofits to a tougher standard. The city has indicated it will.
The city should make Penn pay now. And if Nutter had the gumption, he would lead a movement of mayors to demand that Corbett meet the state constitution's requirement to provide for "a thorough and efficient system of public education to serve the needs of the Commonwealth."