Budgeting For The Schools We Need

(February 2012)

As the School Reform Commission struggles to close its most recent budget gap, I am not sure how we should measure their success.  Even if the bean counters manage to reduce spending enough to make financial ends meet, we are far from delivering a desirable system of public education in Philadelphia.

I am the product of Philadelphia's public schools and was able to attend one of the nation's finest colleges -- as the first in my family to graduate college.  I am a parent of three public-school students who are receiving superior educations.  I am a passionate supporter of public schools. 

But I am also aware that for far too many, Philadelphia's public schools are not avenues of opportunity.  When the SRC closes this year's budget gap, that reality will be unchanged and if the wrong cuts are made, things could be much worse.

We do not simply have to close a budget deficit; we have to eliminate an achievement deficit, a safety deficit, and a confidence deficit.  We have to create a system of public education that is desirable for everyone who delivers and consumes educational services and we are so far from that goal that tinkering at the margins will never make a difference.

However, as we do in each financial crisis, we are debating what to cut, what to sacrifice, and what to do without.  Undoubtedly, there is waste in the School District budget and programs that some would critique as ineffective or worse.  But, the only way we will create the schools we need is if we shift the debate to one about how we will establish and fund a system that works.

Public education is not a day-care for those who can't afford private school.  It is our collective effort to develop the labor force and neighbor force that will encourage employers to locate here and encourage residents to stay here.  It is our investment in our future citizenry and a proving ground for the workers and leaders of tomorrow.  

Public schools cannot only serve those who have no other options.  Our public schools should be places where those with an aptitude for academics, athletics, or the arts can thrive and reach their potential. Of course, certain classrooms, programs, and schools are already national models, but too many are abject failures.  

Too many children are failing far short of meeting academic standards. Too many families cannot count on schools to be a safe place for their children. Too many buildings are half-full. Too many decisions are made to benefit politicians. It is long past time to step back and design a better district.

If we only talk about this round of cuts, it will only be a matter of time before we are on to our next budget crisis and our next round of cuts.  By then, too many children and families will have been failed by a system and the adults charged with its administration.

If we started with a zero-based approach and determined the ideal mix of buildings and personnel and programs to educate Philadelphia's youth, we could create a blueprint for a future that could inspire the right kind of budget debate.  That budget debate could be about how we should invest in public education instead of how we should slash public-education expenditures.

So let's change the budget debate and talk about how to create a system of public education that will be preferred by students, parents, teachers, and everyone involved in the educational experience.  Let's talk about what we need and what it will take to get there.