Best in Show: The Limits of Gentrifying Urban Schools
By Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, Assistant Professor, Urban Education/Teaching and Learning
It is difficult for Philadelphians to be optimistic about the future of public education these days. Even for a city accustomed to doomsday budget scenarios, this year’s fiscal crisis is staggering. The School District of Philadelphia, with a total budget of $2.1 billion, faces a shortfall of $300 million. In an effort to close this gap, the district has shuttered dozens of schools, laid-off thousands of employees, and made previously unimagined cuts to school-level programming and staffing. The consequences of these cutbacks were apparent when schools opened this September: in many schools, classrooms are severely overcrowded, secretaries and assistant principals are gone, materials are in short supply, key staff (such as guidance counselors and nurses) are dividing their time between several schools, and arts and other programs have been scaled back or cut altogether. And, perhaps most disheartening of all, district officials are forecasting yet another huge budget shortfall for the next school year.
This year’s budget crisis, like those that have preceded it and those that will follow, can be traced to the vicious combination of middle-class flight to the suburbs and a school funding model that relies on declining local property taxes. The results are a cycle of underfunded schools and rising poverty. In 2010, the School District of Philadelphia spent $13,000 per pupil on a student population that is 77 percent poor and 76 percent African American or Latino. A few miles away, in the affluent suburb of Lower Merion, where the student population is 7 percent poor and 10 percent African American or Latino, per-pupil spending neared $27,000. Though stark, these numbers will likely not be surprising to Temple faculty familiar with the vast differences in wealth and resources between Philadelphia and many of its near neighbors.
Temple faculty are also all too familiar with the tensions between Philadelphia and the rest of the state and how hostile many state lawmakers are to the prospect of sending resources to Philadelphia and its educational institutions. With respect to the School District of Philadelphia, the dynamic is even worse because the schools serve a mostly low-income population which lacks the political clout of more powerful groups. The voices crying out for more funding for Philadelphia’s schools—though particularly fervent of late—still seem to fall on deaf ears at the state level.
In 2004, I began studying the Center City Schools Initiative, a Philadelphia campaign designed to attract Center City professionals to the downtown public schools. (My project on this topic resulted in my recently published book, Marketing Schools, Marketing Cities: Who Wins and Who Loses When Schools Become Urban Amenities [University of Chicago Press, 2013]). At first, I thought this was a promising strategy for reversing the patterns I just described—the flight of the middle class, the corresponding decline of the public schools, and the lack of political clout on the part of public school parents. After all, if professional parents living in and around Center City could be convinced to remain in the city and use its public schools rather than moving to the suburbs or using private schools, not only would our tax base increase but the schools would have a more powerful constituency on their side, combining increased expectations for educators and students with calls for more funding and resources. However, I soon learned that the task and its consequences were much more complicated than I had imagined. Ultimately, I concluded that while more middle-class families in cities and city schools would certainly help, attracting such families does not and cannot substitute for reforms that address the root causes of concentrated poverty, budget shortfalls, and failing schools. Below, I provide an overview of the consequences of the Center City Schools Initiative and outline some potential lines of action for Temple and its faculty.
The Center City Schools Initiative, which lasted from 2004-2008, was a partnership between the Center City District (Center City’s business improvement district) and the School District of Philadelphia. It involved marketing a handful of relatively high-performing downtown elementary schools specifically to professional families with young children. The marketing campaign began with a professionally designed website, intended to provide parents with a “customer-friendly virtual front door” to the downtown schools. It also included a school fair, public meetings, and fliers promising parents that sending their children to Center City public schools would allow them to “personally” introduce their children to Philadelphia’s rich culture and history In addition, public and private funds supported staffers to serve as liaisons between Center City parents and the school district, often facilitating special access to district officials. Meanwhile, district leaders urged principals in the area to improve their customer service and changed the admissions policy for elementary school to provide Center City families with “enhanced school choice,” giving them priority over other families in admissions to downtown schools.
The areas targeted by the initiative (Center City and its surrounding gentrifying neighborhoods) were largely white and middle- and upper-middle class. Proponents believed that if these parents became invested in their local public schools rather than moving to the suburbs, all of Philadelphia would benefit from higher property tax income, increased downtown revitalization as more affluent families continued to live and spend in the city, and—eventually—a better school system.
The marketing worked: By 2009 the number of Center City children enrolled in first grade in the three most desirable public schools had increased by 60 percent, from 111 to 177. Through fundraising and the activation of social and professional networks, new families helped bring resources to the schools, including new playgrounds, libraries, and arts programs. But these Center City children weren’t taking empty slots. When they enrolled, they left fewer spots for low-income students from North and West Philadelphia, who had for years used those schools to escape failing ones in their neighborhoods. During this period, the number of first graders in Center City schools from outside the neighborhood decreased by 42 percent, from 64 to 37. Not surprisingly, this shift had racial dimensions: The percentage of white students in these schools in the early grades increased by 30 percent, and the percentage of African American students decreased a corresponding 29 percent.
My ethnographic research at one of the targeted schools showed parents received very different messages about their importance to the school community. Recruitment efforts were so intense for one white, middle-class mother that she mused, “If I had been an athlete, maybe I’d have gotten a car!” In contrast, an African American, low-income mother who did not live in Center City was so frustrated by the fixation on “neighborhood” (or Center City families) that she exclaimed in an interview, “What’s so important about this person from the neighborhood coming here? It’s not like this is a private school, where their money is cash and mine is from the government!” Whereas middle-class parents received special treatment and attention from school and district officials, low-income parents felt marginalized and excluded.
In addition, there is no evidence that middle-class parents’ efforts on behalf of the schools reached beyond those their children attended. Despite public and private spending of more than $500,000, the vast majority of Philadelphia’s schools—and especially its poorer students—did not benefit. The marketing initiative targeted 13 elementary schools, and actually focused on only four or five in the most affluent downtown neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the other 160 elementary schools received no special attention. As a district official observed, comparing downtown schools to those in poorer neighborhoods, “making sure the schools in Center City are successful is pretty high on the radar screen. As opposed to, say, Tilden [in impoverished Southwest Philadelphia]. Nobody is really that focused on Tilden, until there’s a major incident.”
Finally, the greater investment on the part of middle-class families in some Philadelphia public schools did not prevent the district’s latest—and most severe—budget crisis. The story of this initiative should remind us that the demographic shifts and fiscal policies that led to the current situation defy reforms or marketing efforts (however well-intentioned) that focus on a few schools or a small group of families.
All of this is certainly not meant to discourage Temple faculty from using Philadelphia’s public schools and supporting their neighborhood schools in a variety of ways. Of course, committed and involved parents and community members can help improve schools. But my research does suggest that these efforts will not be enough and may actually distract attention from the real problems.
The funding shortfalls that plague Philadelphia’s schools will not be resolved without concerted political action on the part of Philadelphia’s citizens and powerful local institutions. Thus, President Theobald’s recent promise for more engagement in Philadelphia and with Philadelphia’s public schools is exciting, particularly if it presages Temple’s active involvement in coalitions with other institutions and organizations in support of public education across the city.
These coalitions could help challenge two aspects of the present education system that Pennsylvanians tend to treat as a fact of life. First, we appear to be resigned to the idea that Philadelphia’s schools will always have financial struggles. Second, we do not discuss the divisions between city and suburbs and what they mean for our schools. Yet these divisions and the vastly different fates of urban and suburban schools they have created are not inevitable; rather they can be traced directly to a 1974 Supreme Court decision, Milliken v. Bradley. In this case, the Court rejected a plan to create a “metropolitan” system that integrated the largely African American school system in Detroit with the white suburban systems surrounding it. This decision essentially created an institutional wall between city and suburbs, meaning that cities have to deal with their social, economic, and educational problems alone, without their more affluent neighbors who nevertheless choose to live near cities because they remain centers for the arts, culture, government, and employment.
Perhaps it is time to start questioning this decision and the educational inequality it has led to. Perhaps it is time to acknowledge that our problems, rooted in policy decisions and institutional structures, call for political (rather than simply educational) solutions. One would be to increase funds for urban schools. In Pennsylvania the bulk of funding for schools comes from local property taxes, a system that creates vast disparities between wealthy and poor districts—indeed, Pennsylvania’s school funding system is one of the most unequal in the country. If Pennsylvania were to shift its funding formula so that a smaller portion of district resources came from local taxes, and then supplemented these funds with money collected statewide, it would significantly alleviate the current crisis and help disrupt the larger pattern of scarcity and failure in urban schools.
Our upcoming gubernatorial election provides Temple and its faculty with an opportunity to make sure that adequate funding for Philadelphia’s schools is one of the decisive issues in the 2014 campaign. Governor Corbett’s administration, which has been devastating for public education in Philadelphia, is testament to the impact a governor can have on schools. Corbett has consistently moved to cut funding for Philadelphia’s schools, decisions which have certainly exacerbated Philadelphia’s budget shortfalls. Whether or not Philadelphians, or Pennsylvanians in general, will hold him accountable for these decisions remains to be seen.
Temple faculty could also—in their teaching, scholarship, and political engagement—revisit the conversation, active during the 1990s and early 2000s, about regional approaches to metropolitan development and governance. The fragmentation of our metropolitan areas, which inhibits regional cooperation and planning, has a myriad of negative consequences, including suburban sprawl, the deterioration of inner-ring suburbs, reduced economic competitiveness, and entrenched inequalities. In his book Hope and Despair in the American City, sociologist Gerald Grant shows that Wake County, North Carolina’s plan to bring city and suburbs together into one system allowed district leaders to create economically integrated schools that were so successful that “there are no bad schools in Raleigh.” While efforts to integrate Philadelphia and its suburbs would certainly face formidable political challenges, they could also prompt a larger conversation about our shared destinies. Short of full integration, it is certainly possible to imagine greater cooperation across districts, including the implementation of programs that allow students to attend schools in other systems and/or the formation of Philadelphia-suburban coalitions advocating for more equitable policies.
In his inaugural address, President Theobald called Temple “Philadelphia’s Public University.” This phrase should be a reminder to Philadelphians of the important role Temple has played, and will continue to play, in the life of the city and in the lives of so many of its citizens. However, it is also a reminder to the Temple community that our fates and that of the School District of Philadelphia are intertwined. Not only do we have a strong interest in the students who graduate from Philadelphia’s schools (many of whom, after all, will become our students), but we have a duty to serve the public good in the city and to be actively engaged in pressing for solutions to the problems our city faces. •
A version of this article recently appeared in www.theatlantic.com.