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Just scraping by is no answer to fixing city schools

Welcome to another chapter of our region's continuing drama, Why Think Big? Rather than tend to the large picture, civic leaders offer short-term solutions. Problems get fixed, if they get fixed at all, with the funding equivalent of chewing gum.

Protesters marching against education cuts on Broad Street last month. The protest began as a candlelight vigil at Gov. Corbett's Philadelphia office.
Protesters marching against education cuts on Broad Street last month. The protest began as a candlelight vigil at Gov. Corbett's Philadelphia office.Read moreYONG KIM / Staff Photographer

Welcome to another chapter of our region's continuing drama, Why Think Big?

Rather than tend to the large picture, civic leaders offer short-term solutions. Problems get fixed, if they get fixed at all, with the funding equivalent of chewing gum.

Elected officials view the school crisis as a budget problem, when it is so much bigger than that - competition, curriculum, training, testing, unions, you name it - and threatens our progress. Instead, Mayor Nutter and City Council President Darrell L. Clarke continue to bicker over which $50 million approach is better. The fighting makes local potentates look petty and small, especially to Harrisburg.

Which is quite an accomplishment. Thinking small is the specialty of the state House - and the Senate.

After a whopping six days in session, exhausted legislators - some of the very folks who carp about pampered teachers, fat unions - adjourned for a full week to rest their weary lungs.

This may come as a shock, but people don't like to live in places with lousy schools. Middle-class parents will move elsewhere, leaving only the wealthy and the stuck.

Lousy schools produce an inferior pool of prospective workers, the sort companies aren't prone to hire. Which, in turn, keeps unemployment and social-service costs high. Those costs, in turn, drive up taxes and make employers decamp to the suburbs, where there happen to be better schools.

So this is much more than a $50 million problem. It's a problem that should engage everyone, especially business and philanthropic leaders but, so far, really hasn't.

"If the city is going to prosper in the long term and be competitive with Boston and New York," said Penn education professor Torch Lytle, "if you kiss your public school system goodbye, you're really undermining your prospects."

So, if we don't change the way we solve this problem, and get the greater community engaged, we're condemned to revisiting the crisis over and over.

"We need lots of people leading this conversation on the schools in different directions, not just Mayor Nutter but David Cohen and Amy Gutmann," Lytle told me, referring to the Comcast executive vice president and University of Pennsylvania president.

People always mention Cohen and Gutmann when they speak of leadership, along with Drexel president John Fry. Then the list sort of stops there. It's as if they're superheroes, and Philadelphia was allotted only three.

Surely, in a city of 1.5 million, a region of five million, we have a greater wealth of leadership than this, more people who want to be engaged. The talent pool in local politics appears even worse. The list of potential mayoral candidates is so anemic, so wan, it makes you want to curl up and take a nap. Desperate to find a candidate who might excite voters, people have resorted to throwing Ed Rendell's name up there, just to see if it will stick.

The leadership vacuum extends to the nonprofit community, as The Inquirer's Peter Dobrin reports in his series. For more than a dozen years, philanthropy was guided by a powerful quartet of foundations committed to the area. Now, there is only one, William Penn, which has been without a permanent leader for almost a year.

Arts consultant Nancy Burd told Dobrin, "While some of the wealthiest individuals in the nation live in this community, they have, on average, a far lower philanthropic profile than comparably affluent individuals in other major cities."

While City Hall squabbles, and Harrisburg recesses, the region needs to take ownership of the school crisis, and beyond. We need leaders, and lots of them, to take control of these problems because help from other places does not seem to be on the way.

215-854-2586 @kheller