School Budget Cuts - A Played-Out Tune

(June 2013)

The news of devastating cuts to necessary Philadelphia School District programs is as hard to listen to as an oboe played by a novice.  I know all too well because my young public schooler took up the oboe last year and squeaked and squawked her way through hours of (painful) practice until she began to make lovely music.  Now, with music programs threatened by the school funding crisis, she practices for what may be the final performance for her school orchestra and I fear that the public school-budget end game will certainly not be music to our ears.  Even worse, I know that this latest financial fight will do nothing to improve public schools in Philadelphia.

Weeks ago, I dropped my daughter at school for early music lessons when she saw an informational picket with signs detailing what could be cut from schools unless their budget woes could be solved.  She noted with alarm that "music" -- one of her favorite parts of her public-school experience -- was one of the highlighted cuts.  I tried to reassure her that favored programs like music and sports are often put on the chopping block to create a "crisis" to which the public and politicians would respond, but it didn't make her feel any better.  As the District has stumbled from deficit to larger deficit, I certainly don't feel confident that cuts will be avoided.   I do know for sure that it is time to change this played-out tune.

After the School Reform Commission adopted a budget that would make painful cuts in spending in schools across the City -- this after deep cuts and even dozens of school closings in recent years -- nobody involved claimed that this austerity budget is anything anyone wants.  School Superintendent Dr. William Hite took to Twitter to declare that he would work to find the resources to stave off cuts:  "@SDPHite: I plan to continue my advocacy with the City and State for more revenue to support the needs of our students."

I replied with a tweet of my own:  "@brettmandel: @SDPHite - Show us what a fully funded (and totally transparent) SRC budget would look like. Give us something to advocate for."

So far, Dr. Hite has declined to respond.

As politicians and advocates attempt to rally support for schools and channel opposition to cuts, I join those who are frustrated with the fact that even IF we avoid this latest round of reductions, years of mismanagement, cuts, short-sightedness, and scandal leave us with a District in desperate need of new direction.

How about, instead of passing a shameful budget, the members of the SRC lay out the costs involved with actually fully funding the "thorough and efficient system of public education" envisioned by the Pennsylvania Constitution?  Why not show us a completely transparent budget that lays out the amounts we pay to every single vendor so we can see for ourselves if our money is funding our education priorities? 

In recent years our taxes have increased while schools offerings have been cut and schools have been closed.  Ill-advised borrowing and interest-rate swaps have burdened the District with millions of dollars in costs without any day-to-day benefits to students.  The District has used one-time federal stimulus revenues to temporarily plug operating deficits.  Participation in costly Tax Increment Financing deals has denied the District millions in revenue each year.  The tragicomedy that was the Ackerman-contract-extension/firing exposed a serious leadership rift among political and education leaders.  Every union contract now decried is the result of bargaining that union and management leaders once embraced.  Scandals involving contracting, testing, and school safety have frustrated parents and other strong education allies.

So as this latest education-funding crisis plays out and as I listen to my daughter prepare to play her oboe at what might be her last school orchestra performance, I don't want to see our leaders cobble together a mix of some new taxes and other cuts to make ends meet for the short term, I want to see a plan to make our public school system an asset for Philadelphia for the long term.

"Make no little plans." wrote city planner Daniel Burnham.  "They have no magic to stir men's blood...Make big plans, aim high in hope and work."

Our school-funding debate is the worst of little planning -- asking for big sacrifices from parents, teachers, taxpayers, and students all to achieve a financial stasis to maintain under-performing schools and a dysfunctional district that satisfies no one.  Instead, we need to show where every single dollar of district spending is going; explain what planned and proposed changes will mean for students, parents, and teachers; and inspire us with a vision of what a high-performing district can mean to our students, our communities, our city, and our state.  

Now that, would be a tune we could all sing together.