Welcome to The Jungle

This Sunday Inquirer piece sums up what’s been a bad year and a bad week for Philadelphia teachers. Teachers and aides have been attacked, assaulted, and threatened by students. Things got so bad at West Philadelphia High school that the principal was removed earlier this week. And then things got even worse by last Friday, so the school district decided to split the school up four ways to reduce the number of students.

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is pointing the finger at the school district for under-reporting the incidences. Also, even though incidences may get reported, violent students may just get shuffled around to different schools. Most of the time, the student stays at their current school: according to one study, 19 out of 100 of the worst cases of assault (called Level-2) result in the student getting moved. While the Philadelphia Schools CEO Paul Vallas said that students who assault teachers will get an immediate 10 day suspension and possibly get sent to an “Alternative School”, he is facing a surprise $36 million deficit. It is this hole in the budget which forced the district to cut back on hall monitors.

While the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ head Ted Kirsch can clamor for the district to “Put money in the schools,” he is failing to mention that two years ago, he had nearly twice the number of hall monitors than this year, and there were still 897 reported cases of students assaulting teachers. There were 791 reported incidents last year. This school year, to date, there have been 409.

When dealing with problems in a system, you isolate the component that’s causing the problems, fix it, and the system works like it’s supposed to. This is true if you’re fixing cars or writing computer software, but it’s different when it comes to the social fabric. Change one part of the social fabric, and every other component reacts, changes, and possibly disrupts other parts. The struggle in Philadelphia schools may actually have nothing to do with the amount of funding it receives, whoever is principal at West Philadelphia High, or how many bouncers you have roaming the halls.

Philadelphia is a hostile business environment with its wage tax on those working in the city regardless of where they live and those who live in the city, regardless of where they work. There also exists a business privilege tax. Philadelphia is the second most heavily taxed city in the country. Over the past 30 years, Philadelphia has hemorrhaged population and business have gone with them. So even if these students settle down and get a modicum of education, where are they going to work?

David Simon, who wrote the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and is a producer and writer for HBO’s The Wire, summed this up perfectly in an interview with Reason Magazine.

For 35 years, you’ve systematically deindustrialized these cities. You’ve rendered them inhospitable to the working class, economically. You have marginalized a certain percentage of your population, most of them minority, and placed them in a situation where the only viable economic engine in their hypersegregated neighborhoods is the drug trade. Then you’ve alienated them further by fighting this draconian war in their neighborhoods…The solution is to undo the last 35 years, brick by brick. How long is that going to take? I don’t know, but until you start it’s only going to get worse.

While Philadelphia can’t and won’t just up-and-end the war on drugs, which is a good chunk of Mr. Simon’s solution, they can do something about the business climate in Philadelphia. And by demolishing the wage tax and the business privilege tax, they will experience some truly delightful un-intended consequences when the students actually start giving a damn.