Bad habits that at first seem amusing become irritating when they are repeated over and over and over again, like all the times City Hall has patted itself on the back for suggesting an inadequate solution to the public schools' cash-flow problem.
The latest example of that is a City Council committee's recent passage of legislation that would allow the School District to sell advertising space on its buildings. That idea, which at best might generate $15 million, will produce a pittance compared to the district's budget gap, once estimated at $304 million. Council members may argue that's not all they're doing to get the schools more money, but an incomplete grade is all they deserve for their other initiatives. Council wouldn't raise the by-the-drink tax on alcoholic beverages. The legislature wouldn't approve a cigarette tax to fund city schools. And extending the city's temporary sales-tax hike is still up in the air.
The state had to be shamed into finally giving up an additional $45 million for Philadelphia schools. The city came up with $50 million. Meanwhile, the city teachers' union appears adamant in its refusal to give up $103 million in concessions.
Given such a pitiful response to the district's deficit, Philadelphia Education Fund president Darren A. Spielman said he was reluctantly supporting the school advertising idea. "We shouldn't need to do this, but let's go get the money," he said. Fine, but if Council passes this bill, it shouldn't act as if it's done schoolchildren a great deed. Neither should Mayor Nutter. They can do much more to help the schools, but it would come at a tremendous political price.
The elected officials would have to conclude that the most important thing a city government can spend taxpayer money on is a good education for the city's children. That would mean redirecting funds from virtually every other city department and putting it into the schools. Such a commitment would require the schools to be more accountable to the city than they are under the state-created School Reform Commission. So why not make more local control the payoff for a restructuring of the city budget that puts more millions into its schools?
After all, it's not as if the SRC's 12-year reign over city schools can be called a glowing success, given the district's improving, but still dire, academic and fiscal situation. Investing more in education would help the city prove it deserves to regain control of its schools. But the city would also need to show how it will hold the district accountable and avoid the problems that led to the creation of the SRC.
It's probably fine if the district wants to put soft-drink ads on school buildings, or allow charitable groups to raise money for books. And certainly the state still needs to increase funding for all of Pennsylvania's public schools, while the city teachers' union may have to concede some pay and benefits to save its members' jobs.
But the city shouldn't stop there. It needs to completely overhaul its budget priorities and spend more on public education. That will likely deprive residents of some municipal services they have become accustomed to receiving. But in return, they will have more schools that educate instead of serving as holding pens. They will have more students who learn instead of training to become inmates.
In time, a better-educated population will yield a better quality of life in the city. With less crime and grime, more people will want to live in Philadelphia. More companies will want to employ Philadelphians. More tax revenue will be collected, and services that were cut to fund the schools will be restored. The most important service a city can provide for its citizens is good schools. It's time City Hall acted like it.