Last Friday, thousands of Philadelphia high school students walked out of their schools and marched on City Hall to protest a proposed austerity budget that would categorically eliminate extracurricular activities, libraries, and guidance counselors. As a former high school teacher in North Philadelphia, I was not surprised in the least to see Philadelphia high school students acting boldly to bring attention to an injustice. As a historian who studies the ways that local battles over education affected municipal, regional, and national politics in the 1970s, I was also not surprised to see local government officials lacking real alternatives to solve the problem. So far, the major proposed policy solutions to the crisis are 1) Mayor Michael Nutter’s proposal to sharply raise taxes on cigarettes and alcohol (about $2 per pack on cigarettes and a 10 percent increase in the city’s tax on alcoholic beverages) and 2) Superintendent William Hite, Jr.’s call to end seniority rights for teachers.
Neither of these solutions would do anything more than provide the most temporary of patches: Nutter’s “sin tax” increase, while well intentioned, would represent a drop in the bucket that would not address the fundamental problem—namely, that the city’s tax base is simply not large enough to support the needs of the city’s 137,000 school students, well over half of whom qualify for free and reduced lunches and need more nurturing than many school populations elsewhere. Indeed, Mayor Nutter’s own optimistic figures project that the new taxes will bring in just over $100 million in 2014–15, a number that will likely decline if and when Philadelphians stop smoking as much or simply buy their smokes elsewhere. (Not to mention the patent regressiveness of a consumption tax that will hit people with lower incomes hardest).
Hite’s solution is a Faustian bargain of sorts: with Republicans controlling both chambers of the legislature and the governorship, have teachers give up workplace protections to make aid from Harrisburg more palatable. One wonders in the first place just how much money Governor Tom Corbett, whose administration has cut funding for public education so severely that students and faculty protested his commencement address at Millersville University over the weekend, would be willing to spend under any terms to save a school district in which there are few registered Republicans. Even if such funding could be secured, however, it would be totally counterproductive—assuming the goal is to provide quality education to Philadelphia school students. The starting annual salary of a Philadelphia teacher is $45,000, far below the current median income in America, $52,000. One of the trade-offs many future teachers calculate—when salaries are generally higher in the private sector for comparable work—is a lower salary in exchange for job security. Take away job security and the city will struggle even more to attract talented teachers.
While the current situation, then, certainly seems dire, this is far from the first time that Philadelphia schools have faced serious financial difficulty. In 1972, the schools faced a deficit of $50 million—which, when adjusted to today’s dollars, is the equivalent of over $200 million, pretty close to the schools’ current deficit. In 1981, the schools faced an even bigger deficit—about $220 million, which in today’s dollars is well over $400 million.
How were these crises dealt with? In 1972, a vibrant discussion played out in Philadelphia in which teachers, politicians, parents, and newspaper editors debated the school system’s deficiencies. The Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce, for example, called for an increase in the city’s business tax to support the schools (the National Chamber of Commerce had not yet become the highly politicized institution we now know, spending about $100 million to support mostly Republican candidates in the 2012 presidential and congressional elections). The city’s major newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer, endorsed a suburban newspaper’s metropolitan solution to the city’s problem: “when will we recognize the interdependence of the city and the suburbs…and start saving the whole region? If the city dies we will go with it, make no mistake.”
Indeed, the tragedy in Philadelphia represented the logical fruition of the larger structure of American political economy in the postwar era. Philadelphia had followed the trajectory of many industrial cities in the years after the Second World War. AfricanAmericans migrated in large numbers to the City of Brotherly Love in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s, while whites began to leave the city, aided significantly by the federal government’s backing of mortgages for racially homogenous suburban neighborhoods with tacit (and sometimes explicit) policies of not selling this housing to blacks.
From 1950 to 1970, the white population in Philadelphia decreased, while the black population almost doubled, and the city’s racial make-up shifted from 82 percent to about 65 percent white. Philadelphia also followed the pattern of many American cities in the years after Second World War, as industries shifted production from the city to outlying suburban areas (like US Steel’s Fairless Works in suburban Bucks County) or to states in the South and West with laws that made it much more difficult for industrial workers to unionize. Economic opportunities became scarcer in the city and property tax revenues could not keep up with the services necessary to keep a city of Philadelphia’s size going. By 1970, the city’s students—a large portion of whom came from poor families—went to school in deteriorating buildings and faced large class sizes. Learning in the city was challenging, as the student population had needs that far outstripped the city’s declining resources.
Though we are still living in the legacy of these historical developments, we no longer discuss the structural problems of American cities like Philadelphia. The results of the fiscal crises of the 1970s were partially responsible for this development. In the 1972–73 crisis, teachers went on strike to avert a similar level of draconian cuts. Though teachers were able to successfully avert most of the cuts, they struck illegally, and much of the local discussion focused on the working conditions of the teachers instead of on the deeper explanations for the budget deficit.
Conservative Republicans opportunistically used such conflicts, in conjunction with the stagnant economy and high inflation of the 1970s, to stifle such conversations. Indeed, capitalizing on economic and fiscal crisis, they argued that organizations—like labor unions and government agencies, though never corporations—stifled the ingenuity of individuals and expropriated the hard-won fruits of individual workers through confiscatory taxation and union dues.
In perhaps the most famous example of this tactic, when New York City faced a multi-billion dollar debt crisis in 1975, conservatives like Ronald Reagan (then in the beginnings of a campaign primary challenge to President Gerald Ford) used the crisis to argue that the city’s “profligate spending,” generous social services (like free college tuition to all city residents), and unionized workforce was to blame. Reagan’s political career as Governor of California, as Aaron Bady and Mike Konczal have recently shown in Dissent, reaped great benefits by pejoratively comparing public education to “welfare” and slashing funds accordingly. Thus it was no surprise that Reagan would argue in late 1975 that “There is no question that the victims in New York are the three million taxpaying citizens, working in the private sector, who must put up all the money that pays for everything else.” Never mind that the recession of 1974 had driven unemployment in New York well over 10 percent or that the Big Apple had been forced to pay a higher portion of welfare payments than any other major city in the nation (both points that Mayor Abraham Beame tried to convey to anyone would listen for much of 1975). In fact, one of the major reasons for the iconic “Ford to City: Drop Dead” headline in the New York Daily News stemmed from Ford’s political instinct—prescient, as it turned out—to protect his right flank from the former California governor. When Ford did help the city to avoid default that November, it was a conditional loan that came only after banking interests had exacted punitive conditions on the city’s workforce (in fact, the pension funds of city workers would ultimately account for a much greater portion of the money used to stave off default than federal loans).
By the end of the 1970s, any mainstream discussion about the structural explanation for Philadelphia’s inadequate tax base or the necessity for more spending on education in the city was all but gone. In 1981, Mayor William Green—a Democrat—blamed teachers for wanting to be compensated on par with those in similar professions in similar cities, and much of the money used to close the 1981 shortfall came from forcing teachers to forego a portion of the wages that had already been negotiated into their contract.
Philadelphia is far from the only American city with major fiscal problems in the school system at the moment. Just a few weeks ago, a similar student walkout took place in Newark, and for much of this week, teachers and students have been protesting the Chicago Public School District’s plan to close fifty-four public schools, mostly in Hispanic and African-American neighborhoods. These are not mere coincidences; indeed, both Newark and Chicago have demographic and economic trajectories that are similar to Philly. It is high time that we stop slashing budgets, closing schools, and blaming teachers and instead revisit the notion of metropolitan and even federal solutions to the crisis in urban education, which has been exacerbated by our seemingly endless economic downturn. We need to reconsider bold solutions to these problems—like integrating city and suburbs or legislating counter-cyclical revenue sharing that would pump up urban budgets during times of economic difficulty.
Because of the fractured nature of American metropolitan areas, those who live in the suburbs enjoy many of the privileges that cities offer—high-paying professional jobs, top-notch restaurants, museums, public transit, sports arenas—without contributing nearly as much to the city’s tax base in return. Beyond that, all Americans have a vested interest in providing a great education for all young people: developing civic responsibility, an educated electorate, and the human capital necessary to compete in an integrated global economy should be in everyone’s best interest. We may not live in a time in which these policies seem politically possible, but we must introduce them into the political conversation, instead of wallowing in the limits of what seems doable. If those thousands of marching students have shown us anything, it is that each of them wants an education. When historians look back at this period, perhaps they can point to 2013 as a time when talk about viable long-term solutions began, and every student was ensured the kind of education they deserve, no matter where they live.
Jon Shelton holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Maryland. He joins the faculty of the Department of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay this fall. He can be reached at jonshelton24 [at] gmail [dot] com.