A new poll has found that the Philadelphia School District's unprecedented financial crisis could have long-term consequences for the city, including driving away 18- to 34-year-olds, the group that has helped fuel the city's recent growth.
A Pew Charitable Trusts poll released Tuesday found that city residents gave district schools the lowest rating in five years.
Forty-eight percent of those who participated in the telephone poll said the district's financial woes would cause families to look for other educational options and 23 percent expected families with school-age children to start to leave.
And residents between 18 and 34 had the most negative views of city schools. Fifty-five percent of them said they would not recommend Philadelphia as a good place to raise children.
Larry Eichel, director of Pew's Philadelphia Research Initiative, said the poll results underscore the importance of resolving the schools' dilemma.
"Overall, we found that Philadelphians have a very low opinion of their city's financially distressed system," he said in a conference call.
The telephone poll, conducted between July 23 and Aug. 13, involved a random sample of 1,605 city residents who were at least 18. Interviews were conducted by speaking with 530 landline users and 1,075 cellphone users. The overall survey has a margin of error of approximately 2.5 percentage points.
Eichel said Pew has polled city residents annually since 2009 to gauge their views on city schools.
"In none of those years was the rating high, but the current survey produced the lowest rating yet - and by a significant margin," the Pew report said.
In the new poll, Eichel said, the number of people who said schools were doing a good or excellent job dropped from 23 percent last year to 18 percent. And those who graded the schools as "only fair or poor" rose from 71 percent to 78 percent.
Eichel noted that the poll was conducted when the district's financial plight was a daily topic of headlines and news programs. The district's $302 million deficit had prompted the layoff of nearly 4,000 employees. And Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. had warned that schools might not be able to open on time unless the district had assurances it would receive $50 million from the city.
Ultimately, the city pledged the money. The schools opened on time Sept. 9 although students found fewer guidance counselors, and other staffers and supply shortages.
Eichel said it was possible respondents would have rated the schools differently if the interviews were conducted after schools opened.
"A poll is a snapshot," Eichel said. "It's possible there could be different answers to this particular question at a different time."
But he pointed out the trend line of the last five years showed an increasing negative views on city schools.
"The trend line has been down," declining from a high of 30 percent when the polls began in 2009.
He said the decline in positive attitudes on schools was steeper than Pew had seen in any polls on other city institutions, including police, libraries, and public transportation.
"You don't see a pattern like this," Eichel said. "This is a distinctive pattern."
Hite said that he was not startled by the poll's findings.
"With everything we have gone through over the past several years, it doesn't come as a surprise that people think and feel this way," he said, noting that the district's layoffs and budget problems had been well publicized.
Hite said the poll reinforced how important it is to stabilize the district's finances.
"This is about saving the district, in my opinion," he said.
When pollsters asked whether respondents expected to be living in Philadelphia in five or 10 years, 36 percent said no. Asked to explain why, 23 percent said schools and factors related to raising children; 29 percent cited jobs and careers; and 25 percent mentioned crime and safety issues.
As with Pew's previous surveys, parents whose children attend district schools were slightly more positive about schools. Twenty-three percent said district schools were good or excellent. But just 10 percent of the respondents whose children attended Catholic or private schools rated district schools as good or excellent.
And although questions have been raised about the accountability of the city's 80-plus charter schools, 64 percent of those polled said charter schools improve educational options and help keep middle-class families in the city. Twenty-six percent said the publicly funded charters siphon needed funds from the district.
Asked who was responsible for the district's financial crisis, respondents placed equal blame on the city and the state. Thirty-one percent pointed fingers at Mayor Nutter and City Council; the same percentage attributed the problems to Gov. Corbett and the legislature.
Twenty-one percent cited the district's administration and the Philadelphia School Reform Commission; 11 percent cited the unions representing teachers and other employees. Six percent said they didn't know or refused to answer.
The poll was conducted before the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers - which is negotiating with the district - began airing a series of ads criticizing Nutter and Corbett over cuts in funds for city schools.
Nutter said that he was not surprised residents were disappointed or were giving district schools a low grade, because "there is more for us to do."
Rather than apportioning blame, Nutter said, everyone - including the city and state - should focus on working together to ensure the district gets the money it needs to provide students with the resources and quality education they deserve.
Nutter said the governor also has the responsibility to ensure that Pennsylvania joins the 47 states that have a funding formula that considers poverty and other factors when distributing state funds for schools.
"Gov. Corbett's main focus is to ensure that students in the district have access to the best education possible," said Timothy Eller, a spokesman for the state Education Department.
"Pennsylvania taxpayers are investing more than $1.33 billion into the Philadelphia School District this year, which is a significant investment," Eller said, noting the amount exceeds the $1 billion distributed among the 62 school districts in Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery Counties.
Jane Roh, spokeswoman for Council President Darrell L. Clarke, said, "Underfunding of Philadelphia public schools and the schools' inability to improve their public image go hand in hand. Our schools cannot possibly achieve their maximum potential when they are so severely underfunded by the commonwealth year after year."
Roh said Council was committed to raising more revenue for schools and would continue to press Corbett and the legislature "to commit to long-term, sustainable funding to stop this vicious cycle of annual crises once and for all."
Eichel said Pew's pollsters had not asked about ascribing blame for the district's financial problems in earlier surveys.