For an eyewitness account of the conditions in the Philadelphia schools, I urge readers to watch a recent YouTube broadcast by The Bullhorn, the School District of Philadelphia’s phenomenal student-run newspaper. You will hear young people themselves describe schools where they are exposed to asbestos and lead, with horrific counselor-to-student ratios, insufficient numbers of nurses, and a lack of arts classes to nurture creativity. One student tells of peers who started naming the rodents in their school. Others have told me of classmates and teachers who have become sick because of toxic buildings.
I am a professor at Penn’s Graduate School of Education. I have been engaged in more than a decade of community-based research with families in the District on educational access and equity. I know that The Bullhorn stories are not merely isolated anecdotes, but testimonials to the conditions faced by teachers and students in many District schools. Some teachers spend hundreds of their own dollars on supplies for overcrowded classrooms. Some principals are forced to rotate “electives”, including physical education, Spanish, art, and science, because the District cannot afford full-time teachers in these subjects. Talented educators burn out under these stressors; others are simply forced to leave because of school closures. This exacerbates existing inequalities because consistent access to high-quality teachers is one of the most important factors in students’ academic success.
Many brilliant young people in the District, whom universities such as Penn would be fortunate to have as students, find it hard to flourish as a result of these conditions. The voices of SDP students and the quality of their education ought to be the moral compass for the city, including its wealthy nonprofits.
It is for all these reasons that I have joined hundreds in the Penn community in signing a petition for Penn to contribute payments in lieu of taxes to support an Educational Equity Fund for the School District of Philadelphia. Penn’s obligations to the school district are a matter of economic and racial justice. Penn owns at least 2.5 billion dollars in Philadelphia property. Its alumni get tax breaks by contributing to its almost 15-billion-dollar endowment. As a result, on Penn’s campus – just blocks away from shuttered District schools – building construction and the University’s plans to keep expanding into Philadelphia neighborhoods continue.
Essential workers living in the city such as teachers, sanitation workers, and healthcare providers pay the taxes that fund the schools. Businesses pay local taxes. Penn faculty and staff, of course, also pay property taxes. A wealthy institution like Penn refusing to contribute PILOTs is not fair.
When I hear arguments that Penn should not pay PILOTs because the District is a broken system, I believe that is like starving children and then blaming them for being frail. But, in this case, the analogy is not even hyperbolic. Students in the District, such as those on The Bullhorn panel, shared stories of both inadequate meals at school and the academic undernourishment that comes with slashing enrichment programs.
This is not a general indictment of Penn. I believe in its research and teaching mission. I am proud of my colleagues at Penn and their efforts at meaningful community partnerships. But targeted civic engagement falls short of what the seventh-wealthiest university should be contributing to the poorest large city in the country. Penn’s commitment to educational excellence needs to reverberate to every corner of Philadelphia. Especially given the dire circumstances the District now faces as a result of Covid-19, Penn and other wealthy nonprofits must fulfill their civic and financial obligations through PILOTs.
A substantial consistent source of PILOTs revenue can help guarantee that our young people no longer worry about infestations in their classrooms and unsafe buildings. Educators can focus on providing intellectually engaging instruction and administrators will be able to hire counselors, nurses, and librarians. PILOTs can help provide the basics for Philadelphia students to realize their scholarly potential and be treated with the dignity they deserve. In the process, Penn will realize its own potential, as a university whose moral compass aligns its wealth with the needs of the city in which it has thrived.
GERALD CAMPANO was a public school teacher for 10 years. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Literacy, Culture, and International Education Division at the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education