Philly's New Family Math: Reason to Move?

By Commentary by Tom Ferrick | AxisPhilly.org
|  Monday, Jun 17, 2013  |  Updated 1:21 PM EDT
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Philly's New Family Math: Reason to Move?

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The unintended confluence of two events — the arrival of AVI and the departure of most basic services from the public schools — has the power to push thousands of middle-class families out of the city.

The lure of suburban school districts has always tempted Philadelphia parents with school-age children. The director of a day care in University City once told me — only half-jokingly — that she thought City Council had passed a law requiring parents to move to Narberth when their child turned four.

One barrier to making that move was the difference in city and suburban real estate taxes. Before AVI the city failed to do regular reassessments, so residential property taxes on some properties here were low, certainly compared to the burbs.

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AVI has changed that, at least for the 47,000-plus homeowners who will see their real estate taxes rise by $800 or more a year.

Consider yourself as one of those owners, who is parent to two pre-school children, now attending the nursery school down the street. You live in one of those growing neighborhoods south of South Street and north of Vine.

Your assessment was $80,000 before AVI. Your tax bill was $2,400 a year.

Your new assessment of $300,000 brings the house in line with actual market value. With the $30,000 homestead exemption your new tax bill will be $3,600.

You had hoped to send your children to the local public school but can you, in good conscience, enroll them in a place with no support staff, no art or music, no after-school services?

As alternatives, there are private schools, but tuition there costs $20,000 a year or more. There are nearby charter schools, but they all have wait lists and pick students by lottery. The local Catholic school closed a few years ago.

Another alternative would be the suburbs, where taxes are still higher, but not by as much as before.

A selected look at four locales tells the story. While the Philadelphia homeowner will be paying $3,600 a year, owners of homes in Haverford Township, Lower Merion Township and Abington Township will be paying between $5,400 to $6,400 in taxes for houses priced in the $270,000 to $330,000 range.

It’s still more, but you get to send your child to schools that have a full panoply of services.

Christine Carlson is all too aware of this scenario.

Carlson is the parent of two public grade schoolers who is head of the Greater Center City School Coalition, a group formed to promote the 11 elementary schools in neighborhoods from Girard south to Tasker Avenue and from the Delaware to the Schuylkill River.

Her mission is to bring neighborhood people back to these schools and she particularly targets recent arrivals to the city.

“There is a wave of young people coming into the city,” Carlson said. “They want to stay in the city. They want to raise their kids in the city. They also have a philosophy of supporting public education.”

To her, the suburbs are the principal competition. And they are getting a boost, due to AVI and the continuing financial crisis of the Philadelphia school district, whose “Doomsday Budget,” which was adopted last week, would strip most support personnel and programs out of the schools.

Trying to convince a parent to try the local school in the current environment is like trying to convince someone to buy a house while it is on fire.

“It is exhausting,” Carlson said. “This year, I am almost numb to it. I am still playing the part as parent activist, but I don’t have nearly the emotional angst.”

To Carlson, it is not just this year’s financial crisis that adds another barrier to getting parents to consider public schools, it’s the instability in the district generally: a financial crisis one year, a leadership crisis the next, and so on and so forth.

The shame of it is that the current leadership of the system is sympathetic to the needs of middle-class parents and wants to encourage efforts such as Carlson’s. She praises the work of the district’s Office of Strategic Partnerships and of the principals in her target schools.

It was not always so.

More often than not, district leadership has had a frosty relationship with middle-class parents, who have been viewed as intrusive and bothersome. Race was a factor too, though never spoken about in public — these parents were not only pushy, they often were pushy whites.

In the 1990s, when the district held a virtual monopoly on public education, bureaucrats and principals often took a “take it or leave it” attitude toward parents who demanded more.

And, many of them did leave. One of the dilemmas the district faces today is that it has only a small base of middle-class parents — only 19 percent of the district’s students are not “economically disadvantaged,” according to the district’s definition.

That changed after the state takeover of the schools in 2000 and the arrival of Paul Vallas. Vallas, who was more of a politician than an educator, saw that drawing a middle-class constituency to the schools would expand the base of support.

To make the district more attractive, he oversaw creation of a number of special niche schools, especially at the high school level, designed to draw the middle class. When Vallas arrived, the district had 32 high schools. By the time he left, it had 56, with new schools specializing in science, a second school for creative and performing arts, an arts academy, two military schools, one specializing in politics and public affairs, etc.

Inside district headquarters these were called “boutique” schools and, privately and less flatteringly, “Gucci Schools.” There was resentment that these schools drew students away from neighborhood high schools — which they did — and also diverted resources from them — which they did not. An analysis of budget data from before the financial crash of 2010 showed neighborhood high schools all had higher per pupil budgets than the so-called special admission and citywide specialized schools.

When Vallas departed and was eventually replaced by Arlene Ackerman, middle-class parents found themselves on the outs again. Ackerman was no fan of these special schools. She saw them as enclaves for whites in a district that was majority black.

For instance, she never visited Masterman High School, the city’s top performing special admissions school, until the day President Obama visited to tout its successes.

Ackerman viewed these schools through the prism of race. It would be more accurate to view them through the prism of class. These schools are the favorites of the middle class — black, white, Asian, and Latino — who work hard to get their children admitted.

For the record, of the 11,721 students enrolled in the 17 special admission high schools 50 percent are black, 22 percent white, 16 percent Asian, 10 percent Latino, and 3 percent are of mixed race or other ethnic group.

If the cuts made by the School Reform Commission are enacted, all high schools in the city will be without guidance counselors, librarians, most school nurses, and in-building support staff. All extracurricular activities will cease, including sports.

No caring parent will want their child to attend such a dreary place. The years of up-and-down experience at the district — with middle class parents in, then out of favor; with financial turmoil always close by; with political support for the schools eroding — may make a parent yearn for a place like Elkins Park, Havertown or Narberth.

Sure, taxes are higher, but life is so much simpler there.

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