Are Philly Schools Headed the Way of Detroit?

detroit

by Christopher Paslay

It’s going to take more than a “fair state-funding formula” to save Philly schools.  

Tonight at 6:00 pm at the Licacouras Center, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers will learn important updates on the current contract negotiations with the Philadelphia School District and decide what steps to take next.  PFT President Jerry Jordan has already proposed having teachers pay more for their health benefits, in addition to taking a pay freeze for one year.  The School District, however, wants more.  The School Reform Commission is asking for teachers to take pay cuts up to 13% percent for five years, among other things.

The Obama administration provided $45 million in debt forgiveness to Pennsylvania, and both sides are counting on Governor Corbett, who is holding the money hostage as a way to get the PFT to agree to pay cuts, to eventually release the cash to the School District.

The PFT may agree to pay cuts, or they may not.  Corbett may give the $45 million to Philly schools, or he may not.  In the long run, none of this will keep the Philadelphia School District from collapsing under it’s own weight; tragically, it appears that the PSD is heading the way of Detroit.

Pulitzer Prize winning Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer writes:

If there’s an iron rule in economics, it is Stein’s Law (named after Herb, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers): “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”

Detroit, for example, no longer can go on borrowing, spending, raising taxes and dangerously cutting such essential services as street lighting and police protection. So it stops. It goes bust.

Cause of death?  Corruption, both legal and illegal, plus a classic case of reactionary liberalism in which the governing Democrats — there’s been no Republican mayor in half a century — simply refused to adapt to the straitened economic circumstances that followed the post-World War II auto boom.

Corruption of the criminal sort was legendary. The former mayor currently serving time engaged in a breathtaking range of fraud, extortion and racketeering. And he didn’t act alone. The legal corruption was the cozy symbiosis of Democratic politicians and powerful unions, especially the public-sector unions that gave money to elect the politicians who negotiated their contracts — with wildly unsustainable health and pension benefits.

When our great industrial competitors were digging out from the rubble of World War II, Detroit’s automakers ruled the world. Their imagined sense of inherent superiority bred complacency. Management grew increasingly bureaucratic and inflexible. Unions felt entitled to the extraordinary wages, benefits and work rules they’d bargained for in the fat years. In time, they all found themselves being overtaken by more efficient, more adaptable, more hungry foreign producers.

The market ultimately forced the car companies into reform, restructuring, the occasional bankruptcy and eventual recovery. The city of Detroit, however, lacking market constraints, just kept overspending — $100 million annually since 2008. The city now has about $19 billion in obligations it has no chance of meeting. So much city revenue had to be diverted to creditors and pensioners there was practically nothing left to run the city. Forty percent of the streetlights don’t work, two-thirds of the parks are closed and emergency police response time averages nearly an hour — if it ever comes at all.

Sound familiar?  Here are some similarities between The Philadelphia School District and Detroit:

Corruption

Philadelphia has been governed by Democrats for half a century—there hasn’t been a Republican mayor in over 60 years.  Corruption of the criminal sort has also been legendary.  In 2007 Vince Fumo, a Democrat who represented a South Philadelphia district in the Pennsylvania Senate from 1978 to 2008, was the subject of a Federal grand jury that named Fumo in a 137 count indictment, including the misuse of $1 million of state funds and $1 million from his charity for personal and campaign use; he was found guilty in 2009 of all 137 counts (ironically, Fumo just got out last month and is now living in a West Philly halfway house).

This is a common theme in Philadelphia.  According to NBC 10:

You don’t have to look far to find other Philadelphia politicians who went to prison on corruption charges and came back for a second act.

In fact, there’s a whole vocabulary about it among city pols. They’ll say somebody “had a problem” and went away. Many of the city’s 69 Democratic ward leaders used to call the federal pen at Allenwood “the 70th Ward” – kind of the way celebrities talk about rehab. It could happen to anybody.

The late state Sen. Henry “Buddy” Cianfrani came back after his prison term and worked as a political consultant and powerbroker for many years. Former City Councilman Jimmy Tayoun, always the entrepreneur, started a political newspaper, the Philadelphia Public Record, which is still going and is read by city and state pols everywhere.

Former U.S. Rep. Michael “Ozzie” Myers, who went down in the Abscam scandal, is still influential in South Philly, where his brother Matthew is a ward leader.

As for current fraud, waste, and abuse: From 2008 to 2011, the Ackerman administration spent nearly $10 billion, with little to show for it other than a detailed audit of the PSD’s financial practices by the IRS (and this doesn’t include the usual antics from the usual suspects, such as Chaka Fattah jr., etc.).

Pensions

Although Philadelphia schoolteachers are not paid nearly as well as their suburban counterparts (we face harsher working conditions, have less resources, and spend thousands of dollars of our own money), funding teacher pensions has become a legitimate concern.  Unfortunately, the baby-boomers who were once contributing to the system are now taking from it, and this has called into question the sustainability of the entire system, prompting many of my generation to ask the question: will our pensions be around in 20 years when we retire?

Deteriorating Resources

It is true that Philadelphia public schools are looking eerily like the city of Detroit.  Instead of nonworking streetlights they are nonworking computers and heating units; instead of closed parks there are closed schools; and instead of long response times from police and fire fighters, there are long response times from counselors, school security, and nurses—because they are woefully lacking.

Tax, Borrow, Spend

Like Detroit, Philadelphia continues to borrow, spend, and raise taxes.

As reported in March of 2012 by phillymag.com:

Counting the previous increases in the parking tax, hotel tax, sales tax and property tax, Nutter is on course to raise taxes all five years he has been in office. . . . Nutter is on course for a tax-hiking legacy unmatched since Mayor Rizzo’s fiscal insanity drove the city to the brink of bankruptcy.

In a city that already had one of the highest overall tax burdens in the country, five years of additional tax hikes could take a generation to undo. The result is an even more uncompetitive city.

Last year alone, the city borrowed $300 million to run the schools, and still faces a $1.1 billion budget deficit over the next five years.

Solution?

Tragically, the Philadelphia establishment continues to turn a blind eye to this situation, and continues to blame Governor Corbett, who’s been in office less than three years, for the mess they find themselves in.  Sure, Corbett’s funding formula has put Philadelphia in a pinch financially (although he’s given Philly Schools nearly $1.3 billion in funds this year alone), but fixing this formula is only a small part of stabilizing the PSD as a whole.

What Philadelphia needs is a paradigm shift—a total change in attitude and culture.  At the core of this is the need for everyone—parents, students, teachers, administrators, etc.—to go from passengers to drivers.  We need to stop being victims and start being captains of our own ships.

How do we do this?  Stop being sheep.  Stop groupthink and continuing to vote for the status quo.  Embrace individual achievement over stagnating collectivism.  Parent your children (that means you, fathers).  Pay your property taxes.  Get involved in your children’s educations.  Hold one another accountable.  Meet deadlines.  Speak out against corruption (yes, blow the whistle and snitch!)  Show up for work, on time.  Enforce current policy—gun laws, student discipline, truancy, etc.—before enacting new, unenforceable (dog and pony show) regulations.  Give no more than a second chance to anyone.

Nothing is free.  There is no perpetual motion machine.  Debts and deficits, at the local as well as the federal level, are real and mean something.  The fantasy that there exists some unlimited amount of money out there in limbo that some rich, (perhaps racist), miserly politician or one-percenter is hoarding (and that we need to rally or march to extract) is just that—a fantasy.  As Philadelphians we need to work together and make do for ourselves.  We need to sacrifice, and make do.

A new state-funding formula is just the first step in saving city schools.  If we don’t change our culture, the Philadelphia School District will end up just like the Motor City.

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