In politics, nothing is contemptible.
— Benjamin Disraeli
Disraeli, I submit, was wrong, and nothing is more contemptible than stealing the future of a generation of children in order to feed a political machine. Sadly, that’s exactly what the teachers’ union and the Democratic party are doing in Philadelphia.
Last Friday, the Philadelphia superintendent of schools, William Hite, announced that his 2014–15 budget is short $216 million. Moreover, he says, Philadelphia schools actually need $440 million to escape their present state of disrepair. As a start, Hite wants $120 million in new taxes + $75 million from the city + $150 million from the state. A lot of money.
Still, to be fair to Hite, he has also demanded $95 million in concessions from the city’s teachers’ union. That’s a testament to a courage that other liberals (New York City’s Mayor de Blasio, for example) lack. If Hite had been a political hack, he’d simply have called for taxes alone. Instead, since taking office in 2012, he has faced down angry parents, disgruntled teachers, powerful unions, and Mayor Michael Nutter.
Facing this latest budgetary crisis, Nutter hasn’t exactly been thinking outside the box. As his spokesman put it, “It is time for Philadelphians to step up. We need both the sales tax and [a tax on] cigarettes.”
“We need.” “Step up.” Welcome to the never-ending staircase to taxation infinity. Philadelphia already has the second-highest tax rate of any city in the nation. As the Fordham Institute explains, absent major reform to its teacher-pension system, Philadelphia’s school district is likely to collapse within the next five years. This is reality. Yet the Philadelphia teachers’ union persists in ruling out salary or health-care concessions. Pensions, of course, are their golden egg.
But there’s a heavy cost to this arrogance. If Hite can’t get his budget because the union continues to insist on inflated salaries and benefits, the average Philadelphia class size in grades 9 through 12 is likely to increase from 33 to 41. One teacher and 41 students. This, from liberals who proudly trumpet their supposed commitment to equal opportunity.
Unfortunately, this is how Democratic-party politics often work. The result is that Philadelphia students are being abandoned at the intersection of greed and power.
This is the sad tale that liberals can never talk about: the preference of political patronage over quality education. Regardless, conservatives can’t just watch and complain. We must urgently advance a better vision for American cities. And we’ll have to be bold about education reform. Yes, we’ll need to dramatically expand charter schools. But we’ll also have to support leaders like Hite.