Facing dismal student performance, collapsing enrollment due to competition from charters, and a crumbling infrastructure, the Philadelphia school district has proposed to shutter about one out of six schools and plow the money saved back into its existing schools:
The 237-school district faces a cumulative budget deficit of $1.1 billion over the next five years, after $419 million in state cuts to educational financing this year. The district’s problems are compounded by the end of federal stimulus money and rising pension costs.
Even after borrowing $300 million to pay the bills for this academic year, the district faces a deficit of $27.6 million, a figure that officials say will rise sharply in coming years.
Its problems are worsened by having to maintain buildings that are drastically underused. Among 195,000 student “seats,” 53,000 are empty, according to the district’s new superintendent, William R. Hite Jr., who argues that the solution is to close the schools, sell their buildings and transfer students into those that remain open. Some middle schools would be converted to elementary schools, and vice versa, and many students would be moved to different schools, sometimes in different neighborhoods.
This is what years of failure across multiple levels looks like. Philadelphia has a failing educational system with an unaffordable price tag. (There is at least one silver lining here: the rise of charter schools means that many Philly families are able to find better schools for their kids right now, without waiting for the whole system to be reformed.)
Financial crises have already come to many states and cities around the country, and more are heading our way. Even as the overall economy continues to improve, the explosion in pension costs, the inexorable rise in health care costs, and the federal budget squeeze are putting limits on what states can afford to send to local school systems.
The question is whether mayors, school boards, and other public officials can respond to this crisis by innovating—by, for example, rethinking administration, so that better information processing, more local authority and smarter management can create bureaucracies that are simultaneously smaller and more efficient. People steeped in civil service culture think this is impossible, but cutting costs by dramatically reconfiguring the way work gets done is standard procedure in struggling private sector companies.
Philadelphia’s decision to close its underused schools is a good start. Rather than desperately propping up an unaffordable and failing system, they’re changing it to make it better if possible—but at least less expensive if that’s all they can manage for now.
Building an educational system for the 21st century is no easy thing, even in school systems with plenty of money and none of the problems of inner cities. It’s time for a new generation of problem solvers and innovators to step up to the plate. “Teach for America” has brought new talent and energy into classrooms across the country; perhaps we need an “Administer for America” initiative to bring top managerial talent into more direct contact with the failing institutions and bureaucracies that can’t fulfill their missions and can’t control their costs.