As Philly goes, so goes Chester County?

In this week of HS graduations, why you need to be concerned about Philly’s schools

By Mike McGann, Editor, The Times

UTMikeColLogoOut here in Chester County, we’ve been relatively insulated — we think — from the collapse of the Philadelphia Public Schools. Maybe you’ve seen some of the recent discussion about all extracurricular activities, even sports, being cut from the public schools. My guess is that most folks around here shrug and say, “that’s why we don’t live there.”

Except…for decades now, people in Philadelphia and other cities around the state said the same thing and moved. And where did they move?

Out here.

And they keep moving out here. Not to blame “them” — you can’t blame folks for wanting a better life and better schools for their kids.

But it does mean higher taxes, crowded roads and yet another delightful Toll Brothers (evidently, Chadds Ford encompasses surprisingly large swaths of land between Philly and Lancaster) development coming to your area. As we continue to bleed our cities to death, largely by killing off their educational systems, we end up paying two or three dollars for every dollar we save. Add in the environmental impact — in the coming years the term “MS4” will be used to explain potentially double-digit local property tax increases from your municipalities — and the loss of our county’s essential character and starving our cities is saving us so much money we’re going broke.

To be sure, the schools in Philadelphia, like those in Chester-Upland and other urban districts, have been mismanaged and government leaders in those places deserve, rightly, some blame. But allowing these school districts to strangle, as is happening in Philadelphia — largely because of the spike in pension costs — isn’t just bad for people there, but for people here, too.

Virtually everything that people hate about Chester County, from sprawl to traffic to high taxes, has roots in allowing — and in some cases among our local legislative delegation, aiding and abetting — the slow demise of Philadelphia’s schools. The regional population of the Delaware Valley hasn’t increased much, yet counties like Chester have seen explosive growth — as folks left Philadelphia, largely in search of better schools.

But if we in suburbia don’t raise our voices, nothing will change and we’ll just seem more traffic, more sprawl, and higher taxes and wonder whatever happened to “our Chester County.”

This week, on Wednesday, concerned parents and educators will be rallying in Harrisburg to fight for Philly’s schools. One hopes that our Chester County legislators hear the calls loud and clear and do what is needed. Not just because it is the right thing to do — and it is — but to protect their constituents, our schools and our communities.

* * *

Since messing up Philadelphia is not nearly ambitious enough of a goal for our state legislature and governor,  it’s looking increasingly like the state won’t be able to do anything to help the public pension mess, privatize state liquor sales or fix our crumbling roads and bridges.

Even for this group, that’s an impressive record of abject failure.

And amazingly, we can’t even blame it on partisan politics.

No, it’s not Democrat versus Republican — and let’s be honest, the Democrats have made themselves virtually a non-factor in state government, an impressive accomplishment for a party with a roughly one million voter registration advantage — nope, it’s state representatives versus state senators and an irrelevant governor, Tom Corbett, caught in between. They’re all Republicans and have gummed up the works and made any hope of a solution pointless.

From our “you can’t make this stuff up” category: the state GOP put out a statement this week where Corbett pledges not to allow “low poll numbers”  to get in the way about doing something about pensions, transportation and liquor privatization. What he didn’t say, and it is telling, is that it is the “Gubernator” (Pennsylvania’s public policy love-child equivalent of a blend of Arnold’s Terminator and Gomer Pyle, USMC) doesn’t have much to say about letting his GOP colleagues in the state legislature get in the way of doing pretty much anything. At all.

You see, the state Senate and Corbett want the transportation bill and a boost in wholesale gas taxes (which will mean higher prices at the pump) to pay for roads and bridges. The house? Not so much.

Meanwhile, the house has passed meaningful reform and privatization of the state’s liquor store system, but the senate seems destined to gut, stall and largely wipe out the bill passed by the lower house and backed by Corbett.

The one thing both houses seem to agree on: State Rep. Chris Ross’ pension reform bill — another Corbett initiative — is kind of like a dead groundhog under the porch. It isn’t going anywhere, but the smell is likely to linger for a few more weeks. That may be for the best — the plan is fraught with shaky math, anyhow. One would hope that the next version will use something like the City of Philadelphia’s model for pension privatization, one that uses a hybrid pension plan to slowly transition the pension from defined benefit to defined contribution, a worthy goal, but one that needs to be done sensibly. The proposed Ross plan would do more long-term financial damage than the 2001 pension vote that caused the current mess.

Meanwhile, the standoff between the state house and senate over roads and liquor would be laughable, were it not so important to the state’s future. The failure on pensions falls more into the “pathetic” category.

The petulant “no more taxes, ever” stance of some (ok, most) GOP state house members rings pretty hollow when we look at the state of our roadways and bridges. Should this bill go down, once again the crumbling, rusty bridge on Route 926 over the Brandywine, slated for replacement since at least 1999, won’t make the cut for at least the next couple of years, due to the lack of funds. And yes, funding has been a primary cause for delay in getting the project done for more than a decade, despite the claims of some apologists.

The same will be true for dozens of bridges and roadways that are in pathetic disrepair.

The liquor bill is being held hostage by the senate, where a handful of GOP senators are either convinced that booze is immoral or that it would be immoral to stop getting big campaign contributions from those who benefit from the status quo (cough-beer distributors-cough, cough-public unions-cough) appear ready to gut privatization.

As these are both common sense issues: the state shouldn’t be in the booze business and it’s probably bad to have our roads and bridges compare poorly to those in third world nations, this should have been easy to get done with one party in charge.

You’d think. But nope.

* * *

It’s the first week of June and as you might notice on these pages, high school graduations are front and center.

Whether you have a grad or just know one well, it can be a bit of an emotional period.

While my own kids are either long past graduating — my stepsons graduated from Unionville High School in 2006 and 2007 — or far away donning the cap and gown, my twins are members (so far) of the UHS class of 2019 — it’s impossible not to have personal connections to the local graduating class.

Obviously, Meghan Shea, daughter of our own Kathleen Brady Shea, and Steven Silverman, whose work has appeared on these pages in recent weeks, are part of the immediate Times family and we’re thrilled for both of them in moving on to the next phase of their lives.

But there are so many, from Mary Salisbury — who it seems like about two weeks ago was a seventh grader who babysat our twins, Janet and Kenny, both of whom themselves will be starting seventh grade this fall — to Brad Pechin, who impressed me with his leadership on the football field (and rugby, where many of the young players including my son Kenny, appreciate his leadership), there are so many members of the Class of 2013 we’ve crossed paths with and come to appreciate.

We wish them all well and appreciate how they have offered much to the tapestry that is our community.

If you have a grad in the family, I know the great sense of pride, accomplishment and maybe a few tears you feel right now. If you’re the grad: congratulations, but the adventure is just beginning.


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  1. Liberally Thinking says:

    Finally! Some one who gets it. The idea that investing in Philly schools makes god sense for the entire region. And the investment needs not just be financial. Yes, “we” are all supporting “them”. But this us vs them problem has not ever made for better communities, better states or a better country. When the investment per child is lower in Philly than it is in Unionville it remains absurd to think that the numbers should produce even close to the same outcomes. Anyone with a school aged child knows how much out of pocket money goes into activities, extra-curricular learning and opportunities. The kids in Philly start out three steps behind and the bad schools are draining away anyone who has enough resources to go. Invest in the schools, help them get better facilities, better teachers and smaller class sizes. Invest in providing sex education, and good reproductive health care to the young women and you will have fewer young mothers on their own. Invest in those schools seriously, like you would a business and watch the income flow back into the city. Higher earners would stay (I know many who struggled with this choice) if the schools were better places for their kids. That becomes a snowball effect. Those who think we can “cut them off” and resent supporting “them”, is falling prey to an us vs them paradigm that simply does not support the health of our country. It weakens it from the inside out.

  2. Keith Knauss says:

    I have a hard time buying to into Mike’s logic that increased investment in Phila schools will increase academic performance making them more attractive resulting in fewer moves to the suburbs.
    First, researchers agree that spending is only a minor factor influencing academic performance. A huge influx of funds would have a small, if any, factor on academic performance. The overwhelming factors are demographic – factors that schools have no control over. As long as 2 out of every 3 children born in Phila are born to unwed mothers, academic performance will suffer because one parent families are not able to provide economic stability nor provide time for normal parenting duties (discipline, language development, preparation for kindergarten). Thus, there will always be an incentive for families to escape to a better community. If we want to help the Phila children, I’d invest elsewhere.
    If we’re interested in preserving the Chester County lifestyle and avoiding sprawl, I’d suggest investing in open space.

  3. Observing says:

    Mike: do you have any helpful links that would show how much PSD spends per student and how much they already receive from state and federal tax payer grants (i.e., from the rest of us)? I’m curious because I understand that (1) per student spending in Philadelphia isn’t too far off from UCFSD (and UCFSD is higher because it’s teachers are paid much, much more) and also because the great majority of PSD’s funding comes from state and federal funding and not from property taxes.

    • Mike McGann says:

      The last numbers I have are for the 2009-10 school year. Philadelphia spent $13,384 per student, while Unionville-Chadds Ford spent $14,535. Keep in mind, however, that Philadelphia has a higher percentage of Special Education students, which generally cost more — meaning the gap on spending for the average is actually larger.

      • Observing says:

        While there is a higher percentage of special ed. students there is also a much lower average teacher salary which is why I would like to see if we can look inside the numbers a little bit. Also, I wonder how much is paid by the people of Philadelphia versus other sources. I know of all tax dollars collected by the state, roughly 1/3 goes to education. I’m fairly certain that UCFSD taxpayers see very little of what they pay in state taxes come back to UCFSD when stated as a percentage of the gross as much of the educational budget goes to supporting financial challenged school districts now.

      • Keith Knauss says:

        Philadelphia revenue breakdown:
        Local 35%
        State 49%
        Federal 14%
        Other 2%

        • Observing says:

          This confirms my suspicions. Philadelphia is paying about 1/3 of its own freight which means that the rest of us are paying 2/3 now by way of state and federal taxes.

  4. Janet Pinkerton says:

    As a Philly resident/mom, I ask you: please call your state legislators and tell them to restore appropriate and equitable public education funding and do the right thing by Philadelphia, Reading, Shippensburg and other distressed PA school districts. You can find links to legislators, talking points, etc., at this Call to Action by Education Voters PA:
    Many thanks,

  5. Marice Bezdek says:

    Right on, Mike! The connection between county congestion and poor city schools couldn’t be more obvious, even though most county residents refuse to consider it.
    And there’s another reason all of us should be concerned: we’re all part of the human family, and as such kids in Phildelphia deserve good schools just as much as Chester County kids do. As John Donne said, “No man is an island . . . each loss diminishes us all,” (or something like that).

  6. Susan Hedden says:

    OMG, you have really nailed it. I came out to Chester County from the City of Philadelphia 3+ years ago, and have watched in horror as the Philadelphia School system has crumbled. I know some of the teachers in the school system, and if they have not been laid off they will be dealing with classes that number 50 or more students. This is a nightmare. Was just saying to a friend of mine that I am frightened for these teachers. And, you are correct, this is everyone’s problem. I am sick and tired of being sick and tired of our State government and our Federal government doing absolutely nothing, other than obstructing and inventing other stuff to do and talk about, and ignoring what really is important – our infrastructure, jobs, and education of our children topping the list.

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