Back To School In Philadelphia: Bigger Classes, Smaller Staff

CREDIT: Holly Otterbein via Twitter


CREDIT: Holly Otterbein via Twitter

The new school year has been marred for many students all over the country by severe budget cuts, shuttered schools, and decimated staff. Philadelphia, where students went back to school Monday, is seeing some of the most extreme effects of these budget cuts.

Nine thousand students will attend 53 different schools today than they did last fall after 24 were closed down. Class sizes have ballooned in many schools, with parents reporting as many as 48 students in one classroom. Meanwhile, the district laid off 3,859 employees over the summer.

A new policy also eliminates guidance counselors from schools with fewer than 600 students, which is about 60 percent of Philadelphia schools. Now one counselor will be responsible for five or six schools at once. Arts and sports programs have also been sacrificed.

Philly’s new barebones regime was implemented after Gov. Tom Corbett (R) and the Republican-dominated legislature cut $961 million from the basic education budget, or 12 percent overall. Federal stimulus funds cushioned schools from state cuts for a couple of years, but they are now dwindling. The district is struggling to fill a $304 million deficit. In order to open schools on time, the state gave an extra $2 million in funding and the city borrowed $50 million. Corbett is also withholding a $45 million state grant until teachers unions agree to concessions of about $133 million in a new labor pact. The district plans to sell 31 shuttered school properties.

The summer was marked by massive protests by parents, students and teachers demanding funds to keep the schools afloat.

Public school students across the nation are feeling the same squeeze. Chicago Public Schools, operating under a $1 billion dollar deficit, closed 49 elementary schools and fired about 3,000 employees this summer.

Besides the loss of stimulus funds and state money, schools are also grappling with sequestration cuts that targeted federal money for low-income and special needs students. In general, city and state budgets have steadily chipped away at school budgets since the recession. Teachers, meanwhile, are trying to make up the difference, taking pay cuts and dipping into their own salaries to buy basic school supplies.