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Karen Heller: What about the students?

As City Council and the district talk funding, they omit issues like educational equality.

Members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission got an earful from the public during a three-hour meeting held in May. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)
Members of the Philadelphia School Reform Commission got an earful from the public during a three-hour meeting held in May. (Ed Hille / Staff Photographer)Read more

Philadelphia's school-budget crisis is hardly an anomaly. Across the country, municipalities are proposing layoffs, shuttering schools, swelling class sizes, eliminating essential programs, and raising taxes.

In Philadelphia, we're considering all these measures, though school closings wouldn't occur until next June.

"I firmly believe this district is at the tipping point," Superintendent Arlene C. Ackerman told City Council Friday in her request for $102 million in funding.

"How much money do you really want?" countered Councilman W. Wilson Goode Jr.

It is safe to say that, despite the new "education accountability agreement" that Mayor Nutter and district officials signed, there is little agreement among the central parties.

It was like a makeup session before the divorce.

The mayor doesn't trust Ackerman, shooting off the equivalent of a drunk-dialing memo last Sunday. Council members are miffed at Nutter for excluding them in the agreement yet forcing them to reconsider the rationale-shifting sugary drinks tax again - It's a health initiative! No, it's a school-funding solution! - and yet another 10 percent property-tax hike on top of a 10 percent hike. And Council is suspicious of Ackerman, the district's accounting practices, and her requests.

She's the queen who cried wolf.

Interestingly, Council, after approving a modified plan for the detested (to taxpayers, not it) DROP program, was scheduled to adjourn for the summer almost a full week before public-school students - until the crisis erupted.

Friday's hearing included debate over whether a beverage tax was "discriminatory" - that is, within the realm of junk food, singling out soda but not doughnuts. There was discussion over whether the bill showed a bias toward solids over liquids, how powdered Kool-Aid would escape the tax.

Council was not drinking Nutter's Kool-Aid.

The failed first sugary-drinks-tax bill proved a boon for local politicians and health care; the soft-drink industry donated almost $100,000 to political candidates and gave a $10 million grant to Children's Hospital of Philadelphia for obesity prevention and treatment. Perhaps Nutter ought to pursue taxes on other industries with a goal toward increasing charitable initiatives elsewhere.

"I'm an educator, not a politician," Ackerman said, which may be a large part of the problem. She's left with virtually no allies in City Hall.

Gov. Corbett has been consistent in his campaign pledge not to raise taxes, leaving the city with the problem, and Nutter has been consistent in his proposal to raise taxes to find money.

If taxes increase again this year, what's to stop Nutter from asking Council again next year? It's like a leaking dam patched up with a never-ending series of tax hikes - not a winning strategy in any economic climate.

It's unclear what Council will do this week. "Support has evaporated for most tax increases," Councilman Bill Green said, and there were repeated calls for city oversight of the district, which is now controlled by the state.

Lost in much of the debate, the rancor, were the students. "If we're focusing on the future of the city, you've got to fund schools," said Public Citizens for Children and Youth's Shelly Yanoff. "The poorer our community gets, the more we need good schools. We are talking about the flesh and soul of our city."

Like other cities, Philadelphia has been fortunate to attract a large influx of young, bright, idealistic people committed to teaching in public schools, where three-quarters of the children are poor. Last week, 1,523 of those teachers were told there was no place for them in our schools.

"My students knew by lunchtime and they were absolutely in tears," says Anissa Weinraub, 31, a ninth-grade teacher at Kensington Urban Education Academy. "It's about what's going to happen to this city. What does it look like when more kids are pushed out or drop out?"

Sara Studebaker, 28, a ninth-grade teacher at Furness High in South Philadelphia, saw her position eliminated. "I really feel kind of passed over and cast aside," she said. She loves her students, her school, her job. "A lot of teachers like me believe that students in Philadelphia deserve better. For me, educational equality is a huge issue."

Studebaker, like many teachers I spoke with, is not waiting to learn what happens with the district's funding, the court and union battles, whether she'll be rehired after all the fighting.

In the fall, she's going to teach at a charter school.