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Poor schools drive college grads away

Noel Weyrich is a Philadelphia writer During his inaugural speech in January, Mayor Nutter made a grand promise to double the city's number of college graduates over the next five to 10 years, pointing out that with just 18 percent of the adult population holding bachelor's degrees, Philadelp

Noel Weyrich

is a Philadelphia writer

During his inaugural speech in January, Mayor Nutter made a grand promise to double the city's number of college graduates over the next five to 10 years, pointing out that with just 18 percent of the adult population holding bachelor's degrees, Philadelphia ranks a lowly 92d among the nation's 100 largest cities. To achieve this goal, Nutter claimed, "we need to commit our resources - both public and private - to helping those who started college but did not finish, some 73,000 Philadelphians. We need to help them complete their college educations."

Now Lori Shorr, the city's education secretary, is reported to be working on a comprehensive plan, set for launch in June, to do just that.

No one knows how many of our city's 73,000 college dropouts are actually champing at the bit to return to the world of lecture halls and midterms, but it certainly sounds like a wonderful, noble idea to lend a hand to those who want to finish their degrees. For a couple of very good reasons that no one likes to talk about, however, this initiative has got to be one of the dumbest, most wasteful items on our new mayor's very long to-do list.

First of all, the notion that the city is somehow "deficient" for not having enough college graduates is farcical. Seattle and San Francisco rank at the top of that 100 cities list simply because they are relatively small and possess some of the highest real-estate prices in the country. Nearly half the adult populations in both cities have college degrees - because no one can afford a decent place to live in either place without the kind of high-paying job a college degree provides.

Philadelphia's true peer cities - big cities with sprawling blue-collar neighborhoods, cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles - don't rank that much higher than us. Even New York, at 26 percent, has a relatively modest share of college graduates compared with Seattle's 47 percent. New York's percentage has been climbing of late, but city leaders aren't celebrating. They're worried - because they understand that an increase in college graduates is just another indication that sky-high rents are forcing the working class out of the five boroughs.

I will admit that image-wise, Philadelphia shares some pretty awful company at the bottom of the degree heap, where we rub shoulders with Baltimore, Cleveland and Detroit. A modest rise in the city's percentage of college graduates, to about 25 percent, would at least put Philadelphia roughly on a par with the rest of the nation's biggest cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston and Phoenix.

So let's assume that it's a good idea to raise the city's share of college graduates by six or seven points. That still doesn't mean it makes any sense to spend city dollars helping a few thousand residents complete their degrees.

There's abundant evidence, after all, that Philadelphia can't hang on to enough of the college graduates who already live here. Why waste your time and effort coaxing a handful of college dropouts back into class when thousands of college-educated households pack up and leave town every year? What is the point in trying to fill a leaky bucket?

Between 2000 and 2005, Philadelphia had a net loss of 71,107 residents, a relatively small number that masks a much more severe demographic problem. More than one out of six Philadelphia residents - 252,804 - moved out of the city during those years. According to the IRS, the median household income of these escapees was $28,797 - about $1,500 above the city's median household income of $27,328. During those same five years, 181,697 moved


the city, but


average household income was just $20,966 - almost $8,000 below that of those who left.

Get the picture? People with incomes above the city median move out, and people below the median move in. Not surprisingly, the pattern is exactly the opposite in prosperous, growing counties like Bucks and Chester, where incoming households earn several thousand more than the ones that leave.

It's hardly a mystery why higher-income people - those most likely to be college graduates - keep departing Philadelphia much faster than they arrive. Any long-time city resident who has watched countless neighbors take off for the suburbs can tell you that people with college degrees very naturally place a high premium on their children's education. And most educated people with the wherewithal to live anywhere they like would prefer not to subject their offspring to the Philadelphia public school system.

As a Philadelphia public school parent myself, I write with some authority on this subject. My daughter is fortunate enough to attend Masterman, the same selective academic middle school where the mayor sends his daughter. If the learning environment at Masterman were more commonly replicated at other schools throughout the city, we might not have so much trouble keeping college-educated households from fleeing. But Masterman stands out in Philadelphia largely because it provides a learning environment that most educated people would regard as merely normal. What is normal for schools in most other places rates as exceptional in Philadelphia. And that is a travesty.

How bad are things in most Philadelphia public schools? A recent report by Jack Stollsteimer, the district's safe-schools advocate, declared the district's disciplinary system "dysfunctional and unjust." Good students can't learn because the district prefers not to punish even its most violent kids. Last year alone, almost 2,000 students assaulted their teachers and more than 5,000 committed acts considered criminal under state law. Not only were these kids not arrested; not one was even expelled. The report revealed the school district hasn't expelled anyone since 2006.

Another report on Philadelphia school violence was released by state Secretary of Education Gerald Zahorchak on May 13. The secretary quibbled with some of Stollsteimer's numbers but went on to express "real concerns about whether all schools provide the kind of environment necessary to ensure safety and promote student achievement." That's Zahorchak's way of saying that our school district is letting a tiny minority of bad kids endanger the futures of the vast majority of good kids.

That's how Philly's school system rolls. And that explains why most educated parents with enough income and common sense to leave the city put their houses up for sale right before their eldest child's fifth birthday. You can practically set your watch by it.

After you read the horrors recounted in these reports, it's pretty appalling to think that Mayor Nutter's education secretary is wasting time on some silly symbolic effort to boost the city's college-educated population. I don't have an advanced degree in education like Lori Shorr, but it seems to me that she needs to spend all of her time making sure that every decent kid in Philadelphia who wants a decent education can pursue it in an undisrupted classroom inside a safe school. That would seem to be job number one for Philadelphia's education secretary, don't you think? And until that job is done, is it even worth discussing jobs number two or three?

To be fair, when the mayor's feel-good college-degree project launches next month, I'm sure it will be welcomed warmly by the relatively few city residents who stand to benefit from it. But that's mainly because once these people get their degrees and find new, higher paying jobs, they can finally afford get themselves and their kids out of the city, just like most other college graduates. Then, with sheepskins in one hand and the keys to their new suburban homes in the other, they can thank Nutter for helping them move up and away from his sorry school district and its doomed, self-defeating priorities.