Philly Schools Open With Little Money, Lots Of Frustration

Sep 9, 2013
Originally published on September 9, 2013 3:11 pm

In Philadelphia, one of the nation’s largest school districts opens today in the middle of a funding crisis.

Two dozen schools were closed over the summer, and teachers are starting the first day of school without a contract. Some support staff who were laid off in the spring have been rehired because of a last-ditch attempt to find funds.

Children are nervous about going to new schools in different gang territories.


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From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti in for Robin Young. It's HERE AND NOW.

It is the first day of school in Philadelphia, but some children didn't get to school on time because they didn't know when classes would begin. Why? Well, some Philly schools couldn't afford the stamps needed to mail out start time letters to families. And once students did arrive, there were fewer secretaries, guidance counselors and nurses and little paper to write on and no teacher contract in sight.

The district is one of the largest in the nation, and it's facing one of the worst funding crisis - crises in its history. Reporter Dave Davies joins us from HERE AND NOW contributing station WHYY in Philadelphia. And, Dave, obviously some glitches at some schools in Philadelphia today, but how did it go overall?

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Meghna, considering that just a few months ago the superintendent was saying he might not open schools at all, things were relatively smooth at the schools we visited. I was at an inner-city school that was taking kids from two schools that had closed nearby. The teachers there said they're worried about class size becoming unmanageable. Some kids weren't on the rolls.

But overall, the teachers seemed engaged and happy to be there, hoping the union and the financial issues will get worked out. I asked this teacher, Patrick Baiyoke(ph), what he thinks about the district asking him to take a pay cut.

PATRICK BAIYOKE: I think it's important for the people that make those decisions to work on a regular basis with us. We're all hands on deck. I spent $60 last night out of my own pocket to get ready for school this morning with different supplies and stuff. And that was just the first day.

DAVIES: And I will just add, Meghna, it has been common for years for Philadelphia teachers to buy their own supplies.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So what about a teacher contract? What's the future of that? I'm hearing that - is there a possibility of a strike?

DAVIES: Well, they're prohibited by law from striking, but I think the issues here are so contentious. Nobody knows quite what to expect. These teachers face challenging conditions, and while they get good benefits, their salaries - at least for experienced teachers - are actually below what suburban teachers get.

They've offered a pay freeze and pay - some benefits changes. But the fact is that the district, the school district and the governor behind them are insisting that teachers take big pay cuts and big revisions to rules like seniority. The union says, no way.

CHAKRABARTI: Hmm. So, Dave, Republican Governor Tom Corbett says he'll release $45 million in funding if what he calls, quote, "real reform" is made in Philadelphia public schools. What is his role in this funding crisis?

DAVIES: Well, Meghna, his role and the Republican legislature's role is pivotable(ph) - pivotal, and there's an old bitter history here. I mean, the city here, like a lot of urban districts, has poor kids with expensive needs and not a tax base that will fund them. So the schools have historically relied on state funding, which folks here believe has been inadequate.

It has been cut in recent years, and the governor is now using the leverage of this one-time $45 million infusion to insist on these big changes on the part of the teachers union. It's not enough to put the schools on a sound footing, but they need it. And it's not clear what's going to happen.

CHAKRABARTI: So what are parents saying about all of this?

DAVIES: They are understandably frustrated and confused. But, you know, I had an interesting conversation this morning with a man named Cawdrey Ransom(ph). He's a dad whose two daughters are in a new school because their school closed last year. This is part of what he said.

CAWDREY RANSOM: The same way they treat this charter schools with their policies, the city backing them policies, they need to back these public schools with them same policies. You know, they took all the power out of the public school system.

DAVIES: And that parent is pointing to a big issue in Philadelphia. The state has encouraged the growth of charter schools in recent years. Thousands of kids have gone to them, taking public dollars with them. That's made the financial problems worse.

CHAKRABARTI: Dave, we've just got literally about 15 seconds or so to go. Given what you just said, it seems like the entire basis of how public schools are funded in Philadelphia is really shifting. So what's the way out of this?

DAVIES: It is a mess, and there is no consensus around any plan that will work. It looks like if anybody pays more, it will be city taxpayers. We'll see.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Dave Davies is covering the opening of schools in Philadelphia today for HERE AND NOW contributing station WHYY. Dave, thank you so much.

DAVIES: Good to be with you.

CHAKRABARTI: Stick with us, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.