Manufacturing a School Budget Crisis

Occupy Philly

Austerity is nothing if not a function of crisis. The kinds of cuts to public services that have become commonplace in the past several decades could have no justification except as necessary remedies to unavoidable catastrophe, never mind whether or not such a catastrophe actually exists. This appears to be the reasoning behind the ongoing wave of cuts to public schools in several American cities, most recently in Philadelphia. Superintendent William Hite might not put it in such stark terms, but his rhetoric surrounding planned cuts to teacher pay and benefits conveys a sense of inevitability: “I wish we didn’t have these economic challenges and I wish we were not asking teachers ... to give back money. But we have incredible fiscal challenges, and it is also important to have [a] certain flexibility." The Philadelphia School District recently issued a list of initial demands for upcoming teacher contract negotiations that include not only significant cuts to salaries, benefits, and job security measures, but also relieve the school district of its responsibility to provide essential school services such as libraries, class size limits, counselors, textbooks, and even water fountains. The city also plans to close 29 “underutilized” public schools. Hite undoubtedly regrets having to impose such harsh austerity measures, but apparently they are the only way to avert utter financial meltdown.

Philadelphia’s budget woes are indeed severe, but was this “crisis” as inevitable as officials suggest? And if so, are school closures and gutted teacher contracts the only way to avert it? Considering the situation in context, the answer to both questions appears to be no. For example, the city reports a yearly budget deficit of somewhere between $255 and $282 million, but this is only the case after state-level cuts of over $400 million to the city’s schools in the past year. Without these cuts, the city would likely be in better shape to pay its teachers a decent salary.

Another source of the school district’s financial problems, officials assert, is the “underutilization” of many public school buildings. They are correct that many public schools in Philadelphia serve too few students to justify the expense of maintaining the buildings’ facilities, but this too could have been avoided. These schools are “underutilized” largely because charter schools have drawn many of their students out of the traditional public system. Charter schools have become many urban mayors’ preferred educational reform, as they provide “school choice” for ill-served students (despite the fact that credible research casts serious doubt on their educational benefits). The result of this increased “choice” in Philadelphia, is that by moving some students out of traditional public schools and into charters, policymakers have actively encouraged the very “underutilization” that they now seek to remedy. Both of these facts, among others, suggest that Philadelphia’s current crisis has more to do with the misguided priorities of state and local officials than anything inherently impractical about funding decent public schools with well-paid teachers.

Austerity measures for public schools are by no means the only possible solution to the city’s financial problems. One easy fix would be to collect the roughly $150 million in delinquent property taxes owed to the city. If the city does insist on cuts to education, though, why not start with some of the waste within the superintendent’s office itself, or some of the funds paid to education reform consultants and lobbyists? Drastic cuts that will mostly affect students and teachers hardly seem the only solution for a budget crisis that was not of their making.

It is naive, however, to think that Superintendent Hite and his colleagues are unaware of either the measures that could have been taken to prevent the current situation, or the alternatives to drastic educational austerity. It is no coincidence that this “crisis” should occur today. On the contrary, the manufacturing of this most recent crisis, and the austerity measures that follow from it, can be read as a direct response to a turbulent political climate. The past several months have seen an unprecedented degree of political dissidence against the mainstream policies of austerity that have prevailed in education over the past several decades. Many are familiar with last September’s massive teacher strike in Chicago, or the standardized test boycott in Seattle this past January, both of which represented bold challenges to the neoliberal status quo. Philadelphia has had its share of protest as well, as grassroots parent organizations partnered with the NAACP in a lawsuit challenging the city’s planned school closings. In a global context where education has sparked larger, much more radical demonstrations in places such as Chile and Québec, even today’s small, localized protests in American cities are hard for officials to ignore. City administrations across the country are undoubtedly feeling the pressure of grassroots activism, and increasingly seeking to assert their authority. If recent events in Philadelphia are any indication, a mounting struggle over public education may be soon to come.