“Really? You’re going to raise your kids in the city?” is the question many local parents are asked when they tell their friends and family they are raising their kids in Philadelphia. Without a doubt, education is one of the biggest factors middle and upper class parents consider when deciding where to settle down. While the Philadelphia public school system is underfunded, there are beacons of privilege that are insulated from the issues the broader school system is facing.
One of these schools is Penn Alexander School, an elementary and middle school located at 43rd and Locust that was created by and receives direct subsidies from Penn.
In 1996, former Penn President Judith Rodin implemented the West Philadelphia Initiatives program. This program sought to revitalize (or gentrify) West Philly after the murder of a Penn faculty member who was walking to his home in the area.
The West Philadelphia Initiatives program included neighborhood cleanups, subsidized mortgages for Penn faculty, and retail development. PAS, founded in 2001, was a touchstone of this initiative. As Jim Dugan, president of the PAS Home and School Association and father of a seventh grader said, “If you [want] to have an area where you’re going to attract families, you have to have a good school.”
Through the perspective of Rodin’s initiative, PAS is largely a success. As an Inquirer article reported in 2010, “The school, with math and reading rankings well above the state average, has helped make the community one of the most sought–after in the city, bringing rapid change in a neighborhood that was seen as gasping for air 15 years ago.” PAS was even named one of the best schools in the country in 2016.
Dugan cites the strength of the PAS community as a benefit from the school. “It’s nice to live in your neighborhood and go to the same school because it just builds a better community … We do little local events that are there for everybody, kids walk to school, they kind of learn some little independence. It’s nice having a neighborhood school you can walk a few blocks to,” he says.
Further, Dugan attributes the fruitfulness of the relationship between PAS and Penn to the “consistency of the relationship.” On top of the $1,330 per student subsidy that Penn provides PAS, the Penn Graduate School of Education assists in curriculum development and provides student–teachers.
However, there's a catch to PAS’s prosperity: Property rates in the PAS catchment have skyrocketed since the creation of the school. Indeed, property rates in the catchment are $100,000 to $300,000 more expensive than homes located in West Philly outside of the catchment.
Consequently, as the prices of real estate have increased, many low–income renters have been displaced from the area. As Julia McWilliams, Lecturer in Critical Writing and Associated Faculty in Urban Studies, says, “If you selectively fund institutions in neighborhoods where the housing stock is okay, and people can get cheap mortgages and send their kids to semi–private school for nothing, you are going to recreate the conditions for gentrification and displacement to happen. If you fund the whole system and you allow the democratic process of tax money being distributed to take over, then it’s going to be a shared thing.”
This increase in housing prices has caused PAS' demographics to shift over the years. During the 2004–2005 school year, the school’s first year of full enrollment, the demographics were 58.4% Black, 22.5% White, 13.2% Asian, and 5.8% Hispanic/Latino, which is much closer to the demographics of the entire district of 51% Black, 13% White, 7% Asian, 23% Hispanic/Latino, and 5% multiracial. Today, the school is 13% Black, 45% White, 27% Asian, 5% Hispanic/Latino, and 10% multiracial. Further, according to McWilliams, most of the white students are concentrated in the lower grades, with many of them leaving after 5th grade to attend magnet middle schools.
Now, not even property purchase into the PAS catchment guarantees students their spot at the school. In 2013, PAS moved to a lottery system after parents camped outside the school for days before registration opened. Maia Cucchiara, Associate Professor of Urban Education at Temple University, notes the equity issue with the previous "first come, first served" enrollment method, in that it favored families who have two parents who can afford to take time off work to wait in line or who have some inside connections in the school. Children who didn’t get seats in PAS were offered spots at another neighborhood school, Henry C. Lea Elementary.
Penn has committed to providing $4.1 million in funding to Lea School over the next five years, hoping “to emulate the success of the Penn Alexander School and desire to collaborate to support the Henry C. Lea School.” Lea is located at 47th and Spruce. Its demographics—61% Black, 13% White, 15% Asian, 6% Hispanic/Latino, and 4% multiracial—are closer to the district’s demographics than PAS’ are. The funding from Penn is allocated towards improving instruction and staff development and addressing Lea’s overcrowding issues.
Since Penn’s announcement to donate to Lea in Jan. 2022, community members and activists have expressed concerns that it will cause gentrification of the area surrounding Lea. “We’ve seen this movie so many times,” McWilliams said in reaction to Penn’s funding of Lea. “When you prop up selective institutions and you don't fund the system, you build in stratification. It's the same way [as how] when you bake taxes and property taxes into school funding, you are baking in inequity. It's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, like the ship is going to go down. The band's still playing—I guess that's Penn Alexander.”
Investments like the ones by Penn to PAS and Lea appear generous, yet they fail to impact the broader school system. Indeed, the combined $1.5 million year donation to Penn Alexander and Lea pales in comparison to the $40 million activist group Penn for PILOTS calculates Penn should be paying in property taxes. With the majority of local funding for Philly public schools coming from property taxes, that $40 million would form a considerable injection of funds into the system.
According to McWilliams, when property taxes are tied to school funding, a conflict arises—between schools as public goods and status symbols. In other words, schools aren’t simply where kids learn to read, write, and become engaged members of society, but also where kids go to be the best and get into selective institutions. Parents can get more bang for their buck by moving out to the suburbs or enrolling their kids in private school.
Schools that are nominally public but receive assistance through private channels, like PAS, help parents to reconcile the tension between their ethics as a citizen and their ethics as a parent by bringing the suburbs to the city. By sending their kids to one of these quasi–private, quasi–suburban schools, parents can reap the benefits of private and suburban schools for free, all while staying in the city. And as soon as this privilege is threatened, which it has been with many of these schools moving to lottery systems to increase access, middle–class parents can take their tax money and go elsewhere.
Perhaps the recent Pennsylvania school funding decision will help even out the inequalities in the Philadelphia School District. McWilliams expresses concern about its implementation, since the people enacting this new school funding decision are the same people against whom the ruling was filed.
Despite the high likelihood the decision will be appealed, at the very least, the decision increased awareness around inefficient school funding in Pennsylvania. As Erin McNamara Horvat, Senior Vice Provost and Faculty Advancement and Interim Dean at Drexel University's School of Education, stated, “What I think is the, probably in my mind, the most important outcome of all of that is that it raised the profile of this issue. Some people are beginning to understand they need to ask questions like, ‘Well, okay, so, how are schools funded?’ and ‘Why does that matter?’”
In a vacuum, PAS is a success story, as evidenced by its high test scores, thriving community, and partnership with one of the best colleges in the county. Of course, it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When other factors are taken into consideration—like West Philly's gentrification due in part to the school, or how Penn donates money to select schools instead of paying PILOTS—the question of whether PAS is successful becomes more complicated.
It's a question parents, the school district, and Penn administrators will continue to wrestle with until all Philly public schools are funded enough to guarantee that all students receive the best education possible.