Asbestos Isn’t the Only Issue in Philadelphia Schools: Why Penn Must Pledge to a Fairer PILOTs Agreement

Olly Liu / The Daily Pennsylvanian

by Tani Madichetti

For years, groups have advocated for a PILOTs agreement between the University of Pennsylvania and the city of Philadelphia, specifically to address the severe underfunding of Philadelphia public schools. Penn, along with other mega-nonprofits, owns a hefty portion of land in Philadelphia, but escapes property taxes as a 501(c)(3) organization, starving the city of much-needed funds. It may have seemed like Penn was ready to make amends through its recent $100 million donation announcement, but Penn for PILOTs and Philadelphia Jobs With Justice have demanded that Penn pay much more. Penn’s “gift” of $100 million will be divided into $10 million a year for a decade, while grassroots organizers have suggested a fair PILOT to be around $40 million a year, around 40% of Penn’s forgone property taxes.

This money would be used to fix a variety of problems in Philadelphia schools, but one of the most pressing issues seems to be regarding faculty. As the school district’s budget gets tighter, teachers are being laid off at alarming rates. This leaves a small number of teachers dealing with more students than they can handle, causing them to be unable to support every student. In low-income areas especially, Philadelphia school teachers are overworked and underpaid, and the added burden of having to deal with issues that are not in their job description contributes to an unhealthy learning environment. Students in low-income areas are more likely to need support from teachers and administrators, but they are often in schools with insufficient funding for these basic needs. Without adequate money to fund counselors and other staff to truly support at-risk students, teachers have become increasingly frustrated, leading to high rates of teacher turnover. This leaves the student population distrusting of staff, further inciting disruptive behavior. This vicious cycle has continued for decades now, and will continue to pervade low-income schools without proper funding. 

Furthermore, many Philadelphia schools choose to deal with students’ disciplinary issues with the use of law enforcement rather than hiring the appropriately trained counselors and staff. These School Resource Officers (SROs) often lead to higher rates of student arrests for non-serious and non-violent offenses, while presenting no evidence of keeping the schools safer. Dignity in Schools’ Counselors Not Cops initiative, a campaign that advocates for the removal of police from schools, recommends that more administrators who are qualified to connect with and support students be hired to deal with disciplinary issues, rather than police officers. Although often a cheaper and easier solution, SROs should not be hired to replace counselors, especially when their presence has no measurable benefit; they simply serve to punish students for non-serious crimes instead of helping them make better choices. 

Research also shows that police in schools are especially harmful to students of color, specifically Black boys, even though students of color are not any more likely to misbehave compared to their white counterparts. Black youth are arrested at higher rates than their peers, significantly decreasing their likelihood of graduating and further contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline. Findings show that Black students in Philadelphia comprised more than 70% of the students suspended and around 73% of the student delinquency dispositions in 2014. Similarly, as of October 2020, Black people make up more than 90% of Philadelphia’s incarcerated population. These two statistics are not unrelated; in fact, they are undeniably entwined. According to research, students who have been suspended are more likely to drop out of school or fall behind in their education, making them more likely to commit crimes as adults. Since Philadelphia has a significant percentage of Black students, this issue is even more pronounced, making the funding of schools that much more essential.  

This is why Penn must commit more than a measly $100 million to the School District of Philadelphia, and its commitment must not end after the 10 years it has currently delineated. To put this into perspective, the requested $40 million PILOTs are about one-quarter of a percent of Penn’s $14.9 billion endowment. Penn’s $10 million contribution is less than one-tenth of a percent of the endowment. President Gutmann says in her statement that “nothing is more important than the health and welfare of our children.” If the University truly believes that, it should put its money where its mouth is. 

Click here for Penn for PILOTs’ statement on the donation.

Click here to get involved in the Penn for PILOTs initiative.

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