For decades, Philadelphia’s public school system has confronted a massive resource gap. Services, programs, staffing and educational supports afforded students in wealthier school districts have often not been available to students who attend Philadelphia public schools. SRC Commissioner Bill Green recently observed, "the fundamental problem with the district is that we can’t get anyone to invest in us, because we can’t get anyone to believe that if they give us the money, we will be successful. That seems to be the number one impediment to resources.” From my perspective, this assessment is absolutely correct.
Surely, money isn’t the only thing that matters in preparing kids to become critical thinkers, capable of competing for jobs and living self-sufficient lives and building a foundation for good citizenship. But if money didn’t matter, would the parents in Lower Merion, Council Rock and Radnor be spending so much more of it to educate their children?
This proposal argues for modifying tax policy and using publicly owned assets to narrow the resource gap in public education. It recognizes the critical role in resource acquisition of corporate and foundation philanthropy. And it argues for changing our long held practice of depending on the State to solve this issue. Moreover, this approach says Philadelphia owns its schools, that Philadelphia’s leadership—political, civic, clergy, labor, (notably the PFT who are essential to the coalition that can make this plan happen) and business—has to evidence the will to exercise that ownership, and must finally accept that closing the educational resource gap starts at home.
Since the 1960s, political leaders have argued that Harrisburg needs to do more. But our experience has more often been disappointing even when the City has enjoyed significant influence in State government, which it certainly does not today. Yes, Harrisburg needs to do more. The fight for a funding formula that recognizes the poverty-wealth disparity and for legislation that addresses the deficits created from student transfers to charter schools are both critical intergovernmental issues. But I would argue our chances of doing better improve dramatically only by demonstrating that closing the educational resource gap is this city’s top priority. We do more first! We show Harrisburg the money! We evidence our commitment. We act like parents and take care of what our kids need.
I believe the place to start is with local tax policy and not tax rate increases. The local tax base is the principal source of funding all government services of which by far the single largest is public education. In response to the fact that our tax system has a significant deterrent to job creation and economic growth, we’ve implemented numerous breaks and transactional fixes to stimulate the city’s economy. To address that, policies to stimulate investment have been layered into the City’s tax regime. These multiple tax policies and practices inadvertently contribute to the educational resource gap. Every tax subsidy that drives one economic activity takes a bite out of revenue that would otherwise flow to schools. We have always formed the policy question around jobs and development. Now it is time we asked the question, can public education meet the needs of its students with fewer resources so that other economic interests can accomplish more?