For decades, high school students, parents, teachers, community organizers, and members of Philadelphia’s City Council have called on the University of Pennsylvania to make payments in lieu of taxes (PILOTs) to Philadelphia’s public schools. With them, and with everyone in the Penn community who has pressed the issue, I celebrate the university’s announcement last month that it will contribute $100 million, split into $10 million annual payments to be made over 10 years.
This news allows us to continue and deepen our conversations about PILOTs, not end them. People across the city are newly conscious of the way racism and inequality are built into what it means to live in Philadelphia. With our elected officials and our teachers, we should redouble efforts to ensure that well before 10 more years have passed, Philadelphia’s children have access to fully funded public education.
More than half of the local revenues for Philadelphia’s public schools come from property taxes. When big nonprofits do not pay a fair share, other property owners pay the difference, including small businesses and homeowners who are not wealthy.
I teach at Penn. I value our commitment to high-quality research, and I recognize that wealth makes that research possible. But neither wealth nor research obviates civic responsibility. With many of my colleagues, I am certain that the institution’s endowment of $14.9 billion means that Penn can and should convert what is now being discussed as a time-limited “gift” into a permanent annual commitment to pay PILOTs.
Ten million per year represents about 10% of what Penn would owe in property taxes. In other cities like Boston, New Haven, Conn., and Providence, R.I., wealthy nonprofits have agreed to pay PILOTs above that standard. Many in Philadelphia have called on the university to pay 40% of what it would owe in property taxes to the public schools — an estimated $40 million per year. That’s a reasonable figure. Other nonprofits should also step up so that Philadelphia’s public schools have the money needed to educate the next generation.
Penn’s 10 years of payments will help the district remove asbestos and lead from buildings, and that is exactly the starting point we need. But our collective vision must not end there. Schools without music teachers, without auditoriums, and without sinks in chemistry rooms are a travesty. Kids need adequate numbers of school nurses, counselors, and multilingual staff. My son’s brilliant biology teacher should not have had to spend hours trying to create a workaround because her classroom did not have enough electrical outlets. My daughter should not have attended a school without a dedicated librarian.
As a parent who has been involved with three different home and school associations in the Philadelphia School District, I have met caring, committed people. Too often, however, our meetings ended up dominated by building issues.
Our kids got sent home too frequently, even before COVID-19. Sweltering days in crowded classrooms without air-conditioning mean that kids have to leave. Cold days sometimes bring the opposite problem — my youngest and his teachers spend winter days frustrated by an ancient steam heating system that regularly is down for maintenance and heats unevenly even when it is working. Both he and his older brother also have attended school in buildings that were found to have damaged asbestos, which for one of them meant that his senior year of high school (pre-pandemic) involved months of the school building being closed and parents negotiating with district officials, not for music or lab facilities, but simply for access to classrooms.
Philadelphia parents have experiences like this in our minds. We welcome Penn’s announcement as the beginning of a collective recognition that all of the big nonprofits share a responsibility to pay PILOTs and contribute to public education. In the longer term, however, we cannot think that surprise announcements will be the funding solution that schoolchildren in the city need. Public schools should not be imagined as needing charity. They belong to all of us.
As a faculty member, I am gratified to see the University of Pennsylvania begin to recognize what it owes Philadelphia. Going forward, a commitment to PILOTs would give educators around the city a chance to reimagine what teaching and learning can mean in the city we share.
Ann Farnsworth-Alvear is an associate professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. She is affiliated with Penn for Pilots.