Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Revisionist Themes
In taking a comprehensive view of a city, an author sometimes makes observations which differ from the common view. Usually with special pride, sometimes a little sullen.

Education in Philadelphia
Taxes are too high, but the tax base is too small, so public education is underfunded. Drug use and lack of classroom discipline are also problems. Business and employed persons have fled the city, must be induced to return. Deteriorating education, rising taxes and crime are the immediate problems, but the underlying issue is lack of vigor and engagement by the urban population itself.

Cost of K-12 Education

{Kids In the Classroom}
Kids In the Classroom

The April 11, 2010 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer contained the thirteenth annual "Report Card" on schools of the eight-county Philadelphia metropolitan area. The report is eighteen newspaper pages long, mostly statistics, a real contribution to the area's understanding of itself in an important area of concern. Perhaps some future edition will take the data for a thirteen-year period and measure how things are changing over time, for better or worse. Trend analysis is often more illuminating than a snapshot of one moment in time but requires uniform data definitions. Achieving uniform year-to-year definitions can itself cause some other problems. For example, the Pennsylvania figures for teachers' salaries makes a measurement cut at $80,000 per year, while the New Jersey data samples salaries over $75,000. It's therefore hard to compare salaries between the two states, but if you want to compare a district with itself over time, you have to continue to report it the way you did last year. It somewhat depends on whether you want to study the two state governments or the individual school districts. Therefore, compromises of data collection made years ago, continue to be made for the sake of consistency. This sort of rough adjustment is just part of data management and usually proves to have had an innocent beginning. Inflation and population migration similarly make it difficult to collect data year after year which will illustrate a meaningful trend in future decades. Sometimes you measure things at the state level because small but important trends just don't show up meaningfully in the smaller school districts. That's not a criticism, that's just the way it is.

Buried within the long columns, a few numbers do fairly scream for attention. Philadelphia's 163,647 school children are 87% non-white, a "minority" group that badly needs educational help if they are to become productive members of a globalized, service (non-industrial, non-farm), economy. Unfortunately, the City is stretched to spend $11,426 per student, the lowest average of any district in the 8-county area. The lowest, remember, of several hundred neighboring districts. At the same time, the City is fast approaching bankruptcy because its present tax level drives away business. The resulting unemployment raises welfare costs, and fosters higher expenditures on crime and punishment, drawing resources away from education. The credit of the City is shaky, so closing the gap by borrowing gets harder all the time; this is a terrible moment to experience an economic recession. If you dig into this data just a little, you get an important illumination. Philadelphia teachers' salaries are lower than 80% of the neighboring region, but compared with property values, they are in the middle of the range. We are in the middle of a recession, but worse still we are in the middle of a real estate recession, where most school taxes are based. Think that over; that has to mean property values are depressed in the City and will go even lower if real estate taxes are raised. Alternatively, rising property values would result in rising tax revenue, and then the City could afford to pay teachers enough to attract them back into the City school system. Paying the lowest salaries for miles around almost certainly affects the quality of the teachers attracted to work here. At the moment, however, the City doesn't dare raise taxes. But it also doesn't dare let the school system fall apart. The city has passed the tipping point where this will correct itself, and must somehow do something dramatic to get to the other side of that tipping point. Vehement union demands make it seem that all this problem needs is more money. That's far from enough; since it's hard to see where the money would come from, it's anyway vital to be thinking of nonfinancial solutions as at least as important as financial ones.

The school system doesn't show up very well in the statistics. More than half of the city high schools send less than half of their students to some kind of college. Leaving college quality to one side, only one of the hundreds of eight-county school districts also sends fewer than half its class to college; most of them send 80-90%. And the one non-Philadelphia school district in the region which sends only 38% to college is the City of Chester, which has problems similar to those of Philadelphia. Outside the city limits, this metropolitan region is doing fairly well in the struggle to educate its next generation for a globalized economy. But unless something pretty dramatic is done, the inner city will not be able to cope with low-cost foreign labor, nor will it be suitable for the better-paying jobs, while employers could actually be starving for educated labor, but totally unable to make use of uneducated job applicants, once the recession is over.

For centuries, Philadelphia subsidized the farm regions of Pennsylvania, in the sense that it contributed more state tax revenue than it received back in benefits. Ever since World War II, however, the rest of the state has been subsidizing Philadelphia and hates this situation with a lethal political passion. During the last half of the 19th Century and particularly with the automobile in the early 20th Century, the agricultural workers of Central Pennsylvania have migrated to the city to take industrial jobs. There is no going back; agriculture now only employs 2% of the nation's population, industrial employment is going in the same direction. The former agricultural/industrial workers must somehow get themselves educated enough to face new challenges. We have twelve million illegal immigrants in America; the appalling thing is to hear we may need their labor because somehow twelve million legal immigrants aren't up to the task. Once they get mixed up with recreational drugs and the criminal justice system, what little chance they had for advancement rapidly fades. The Chinese tackled this same problem by forbidding reproduction. Industrial Europe tackled this problem with famine and wars. Because Americans can't even discuss such approaches, it looks as though there is nothing to do, but that isn't so. We've just exhausted our traditional approaches.

During the 19th Century, for example, the Catholic school system of Philadelphia was one of the wonders of America. That's what Cardinal John Henry Newman was all about, and he richly deserved to be sainted. For reasons remote from this discussion, the Catholic Church school system lost considerable vigor in America. That sad process seems to be continuing a downward spiral, so it's doubtful it will revive soon. Perhaps the charter school approach can fill the void, perhaps a voucher system of school choice has something to offer. Meanwhile, Catholic schools are feeling a drop in enrollment, some are closing; the most common complaint is that the current recession in the economy has made the tuition to Catholic schools a serious handicap to competing with charter schools in their neighborhood, where the education is said to be at least as good, and free. A shorthand description of the politics here is the public school teachers union fear vouchers for school choice, and the Catholic schools fear tuition-free charter schools. What might be helpful would be a realignment of incentives within a voucher system which would benefit all three school choices instead of victimizing the public schools; standardized testing at least opens the way to devising a reward system to inform the flow of public subsidies. No one is interested in a system like that in France, where every student in every school is looking at the same page of the same textbook every day. The goal is to reward objective educational improvement, under any or all management structures; and the main problem is to be objective about the measurement of it.

Maybe we should legalize recreational drugs, but then maybe we should legalize recreational crime; bad ideas will always come forward in a crisis, and someone must have the fortitude to reject them. And someone has to have the fortitude to face down the Teachers' Unions; it was better if that someone is black. Someone must face down organized crime, quite regardless of the crime product popular at the moment; it was better if that someone could be of Italian extraction. Right now, it looks as though the state government of New Jersey came close to being dominated by an informal network of gamblers, criminals and public service unions. We are close enough to watch with awe as a former prosecutor takes a meat ax to what he learned when he was an investigator. One hopes for his success while watching uneasily to see if he can himself remain within legal norms. Philadelphia remains of the mindset of buying its way out of the education problem; that's not going to work.

For one thing, it seems to have been unsuccessful in neighboring Camden. Once more referring to the Inquirer's educational report card, Camden produces some documented warnings. Camden spends $16,131 per pupil, about half again as much as Philadelphia. Camden teachers are paid in the top quintile for the state, class size is nearly the smallest in the state. About 88% of the money is contributed by the state government, which temporarily at least solves that particular issue. In spite of this spending, Camden has the highest crime rate in America, its school population remains 99% nonwhite, only 38% of those who struggle to high school go on to college, and their SAT scores are the lowest or nearly the lowest in the state. Perhaps in time, the education will improve; there is little sign the economics of the city has improved. Lots of abandoned building have been torn down, nothing new has been constructed except with public tax money. Money may be necessary for urban revival, but it certainly is not the central solution. Until the politics improve, there is little likelihood that civil society, non-government organizations, can produce the leadership so strikingly missing. The corrupt government must at least get out of the way.

Because more money without civic engagement probably cannot solve the problem, gimmicks to beg or borrow money may be a distracting blind alley. Philadelphia consolidated the city with the surrounding suburbs 150 years ago. That seemed for a while to bring prosperity, but its instability in the face of declining resources is one of the main reasons the 1929 depression was so particularly destructive to overextended Philadelphia. The city was no longer right-sized for its population. When the urban population fled to the far suburbs, not only was further political consolidation impossible, the intervening deserted areas of West Philadelphia, Germantown, and North Philadelphia became slums, so large in area as to be beyond all hope that population growth could soon fill them. As you travel on Amtrak either north or south, the border between Philadelphia slum and suburban greenery is sharply visible at the artificial political borders. The slums grew outward to the border and stopped, the suburbs grew inward to the border and stopped. If the borders moved closer to City Hall, the suburbs would follow; just look at Conshohocken. There's little likelihood of that happening soon, and most of the reason is the present centrifugal mindset of the populace. In their view, the further out you go, the richer you will get. When reality sets in on that particular delusion, perhaps the matter can be reopened. The point right now is that we tried to make the suburbs support the urban core, once, and that opportunity is all worn out. It would be much more useful, not necessarily easier, to introduce some civility into state government.

Originally published: Sunday, April 11, 2010; most-recently modified: Wednesday, May 15, 2019