Pink slips were recently sent to 19 percent of the school-based work force, including all 127 assistant principals, 646 teachers and more than 1,200 aides. Principals are contemplating opening in September with larger classes but no one to answer phones, keep order on the playground, coach sports, check out library books or send transcripts for seniors applying to college.Philadelphia’s schools, whose chronic budget problems led to a state takeover in 2002, have not been this close to the abyss in memory. The troubles have many causes: rising pension costs, high debt payments for past borrowing that papered over budget gaps, a flight to charter schools and a block-grant formula for state aid that has fallen behind enrollments, which have increased 5,000 a year between charter and traditional schools, according to Mr. Hite.
The tighter budget is a continuation of the city’s efforts to trim the fat: The city faces a $1.35 billion budget deficit and earlier this year opted to shutter and consolidate 23 schools. Philadelphia is far from alone in its problems. One Michigan school district was temporarily shut down due to lack of funds, while another fired all of its teachers. Chicago closed nearly 50 schools earlier this year in one of the biggest schools closures in the country.The cuts in school districts across the country are painful for the thousands of public woekers affected, but they are far from a death sentence for the schools. Most of the cities that have seen their budgets cut have been running massively inefficient organizations with bloated bureaucracies for years. Many struggling urban schools serve only a small fraction of the students they were designed to serve; many others have alarmingly poor results on student achievement despite massive per student spending totals.In the private sector, it’s standard practice for struggling companies to cut costs and personnel in an effort to remain efficient. Due to the power of entrenched bureaucracies and public unions, this is far less common in the public sector, but the massive budget crises faced by these struggling cities has forced their hand. Now these school districts are faced with a choice: either innovate and find a way to deliver better results for less money, or watch students and residents abandon the school system for better alternatives elsewhere.Fortunately, 33 percent of Philadelphia’s 200,000 students are already in charter schools. They will be shielded as public officials attempt to navigate their new financially constrained world. But for the sake of the other students, we hope these officials catch on quickly.[Closed school image courtesy of Shutterstock]