Philadelphians Deserve Control of Their Own City

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board awarded Philadelphia's second casino license to the Live! Hotel and Casino on Tuesday. The board cited the potential traffic generated by attendees of sporting events at South Philadelphia's stadium complex, the lower (i.e. more realistic) revenue projections for Live!, and the lack of deficit funding that would be involved in financing the project as reasons for choosing Live!. 

The board also questioned whether casino-goers would utilize public transit to the degree that the proposals for two Center City based casinos envisioned. 

From a gambling standpoint, the board may well be right. I know 0 about the economics of casinos. But from every other potential vantage point, the decision is nothing short of moronic. 

Although city officials expressed support after the board's decision, citing the semi-finality after years of tumult (opponents are sure to take the matter to court) and the potential for job creation, this decision is terrible for the city. 

As I blogged about in September, the two Center City sites offered potential to redevelop blighted stretches. They might have served as anchors for local business development and had salutary effects that had little to do with gaming. 

Instead, the state board plopped a big box casino down in an area that hardly needs additional traffic. As anyone who has ever attended an event at the stadium complex knows, when one or two events bring 65,000 people to the area, the local roadways quickly become a parking lot. 

Though the board expressed concern about traffic in Center City, it said little about its rationale for passing up the potential development opportunity. It seems as though it focused entirely on the potential for Live! to succeed as a gambling venue, which may well be its charge, but which is colossally short sighted from a planning standpoint. It also may be foolish given the growing number of Northeastern casinos. A project that offered other salutary benefits, and relied less on gaming would have been less susceptible to a downturn caused by declining gaming revenues. 

The board's decision is also emblematic of a far larger problem. In too many areas, state run commissions and boards control Philadelphia. The state run School Reform Commission (roughly as popular as Ebola or the Dallas Cowboys in Philadelphia) runs Philadelphia's schools, the state run Philadelphia Parking Authority (even less popular than the School Reform Commission if that is possible) controls street parking and garages throughout the city, and now the Gaming Control Board made the decision about a major potential development for the second time. 

That doesn't even count the ways in which the state legislature frequently hamstrings the city from enacting popular legislation that might be beneficial to Philadelphia (Philadelphia had to sue the state this month over a new law that gives organizations such as the National Rifle Association the right to sue cities over local firearm ordinances. This new law stemmed from another state law that prevents municipalities like Philadelphia from having stricter guns laws than the state). 

As a 2011 piece on the Parking Authority explains, " Why would a state senator from Jefferson County, Pennsylvania care about parking spaces in Philadelphia? He probably doesn’t, yet he has more say over who runs the Philadelphia Parking Authority than the mayor of Philadelphia does." 

The PPA is perhaps the most egregious example of state control in Philadelphia, because the state took over the Authority in 2001 to benefit Republican patronage (its director Vince Fenerty, is a former Republican ward leader). The state also took over Philadelphia's schools in 2001, but for more legitimate reasons related to financial difficulties. 

For the Republican controlled legislature to allow these state run entities to control major elements of city governance reeks of rank hypocrisy (and Republicans controlled the legislature in 2001 when the state took over the schools and the PPA). After all, Republicans purport to be the party of smaller government, and state and local control. 

The problem with these state run entities is that they do not have to answer to the citizenry for any of their decisions. No wonder they are free to do countless things that raise the ire of Philadelphians, and that, arguably, hurt the city. In so much as they answer to anyone, it is to state legislators and their constituents, who have fundamentally different needs and goals than Philadelphia and Philadelphians. 

Now I understand that the counterargument might be that the state provides massive funding to Philadelphia's schools, and that gambling requires uniform statewide regulation. Nonetheless, the problem remains that there is no way to force these government agencies to prioritize the good of the city, and in fact, sometimes their charge requires doing the opposite of what is good for Philadelphia. 

I'll freely admit that Philadelphia's local officials don't have a seller record of governing in the city's best interest. But at least they run the risk that at some point angry reform minded voters might end their careers if they ignore the public will. 

By contrast, why should a member of the Gaming Control Board appointed by Pennsylvania State Senate President Pro Tempe Joe Scarnati, who represents Cameron, Clearfield, Clinton, Elk, Jefferson, Mckean, Potter and Tioga Counties, none of which is close to Philadelphia, care about what casino offers the best development prospects for Philadelphia? (The governor and the legislative leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the State House and State Senate appoint the members of the Gaming Control Board). 

Given that none of the legislative leaders making appointments are from Philadelphia, and given that outgoing Governor Tom Corbett is a Republican, who received minimal electoral support in Philadelphia, these board members have little practical incentive to heed the wishes of local officials or the public.

Indeed, Mayor Michael Nutter favored one of the two Center City casino sites, arguing that they could have spurred "real revitalization" in those neighborhoods. Not surprisingly, the mayor prioritizes real revitalization in neighborhoods in his city, because that is his job. 

The mission statement for the Gaming Control Board, by contrast, states that it will "protect the interest of the public by ensuring the integrity of legalized gaming through the strict enforcement of the law and regulations, the licensing of qualified individuals and entities, and fulfilling the objectives of limited gaming in the Commonwealth to deliver a significant source of revenue, assist the horse racing industry, provide broad economic opportunities and enhance tourism."

Nutter and the members of the Board have fundamentally different charges, and they answer to different bosses. The same can be said for the PPA and SRC. 

When considering the casino proposals, the Gaming Control Board had to consider gaming revenue (and the revenue that gaming would produce for the state), the ability of the casino to compete with Pennsylvania's other casinos, as well as the plethora of casinos in neighboring states, for regional business, it's ability to draw gamblers, etc. They did not have to consider which casino proposal promised the most potential benefit for the city. 

By contrast, Nutter and other city officials did precisely that, which involved considering factors such as the impact from spurring other development in an area, creating an entertainment destination, even if it produced less gambling revenue, improving infrastructure, adding conveniently located hotel rooms that helped local convention business, etc.

City officials also think about the good of the city writ large. From their perspective, Live!'s close proximity to major highways, which might bring convenience seeking gamblers to the casino, might be less important, because those gamblers are probably less likely to explore the rest of the city (especially given that Live! will be several miles from Center City). For the Gaming Board, that factor made the site more attractive. 

In reality, almost no person familiar with the needs and realities of Philadelphia would have selected the Live! proposal. But, as the Gaming Board showed in green lighting the Sugarhouse casino in 2006, which is cut off from any neighborhood, and basically only appeals to gamblers (Sugarhouse is building an expansion, which may add attractions for non-gamblers, but that remains to be seen), they don't care about urban development or taking advantage of gaming licenses to benefit the city. 

One could similarly analyze many of the decisions by the other state entities and explain how city officials might have looked at them differently. 

The bottom line is that state officials or state commissions are not the parties best equipped to consider Philadelphia's needs and to do the the things necessary to continue the city's growth. It might be one thing if the state took control of city institutions in order to provide better regional cohesion and regional funding/ownership of public institutions (like schools). But just to run things because of some presumed superior competence (or in the case of the PPA no clear, discernible reason), is wrong, and hurts Philadelphia and Philadelphians. 

Local control should be restored, at which point we can focus on holding local officials accountable when they don't act in the public's interest. 


The Sin of Silence

Inga Saffron of the Philadelphia Inquirer alerted us two weeks ago to an abomination in process. One of Philadelphia's true development success stories has a good chance of being derailed because of a recalcitrant politician. 

In brief, developers U3 Ventures and the Thylan Group consulted early and often with neighborhood groups regarding a development project at 43rd and Baltimore Avenue. This process resulted in an outstanding design that actually excited neighbors (a stark contrast to the usual complaints about lack of consultation, concerns about the impact of development on a neighborhood, etc). According to Saffron, the City Planning Commission also applauded the design. 

So we have a fairy tale complete with a happily ever after ending, right? Not so fast. In order for the development to proceed, the zoning for the block needs to change. Because of Philadelphia's arcane, unwritten rules, that requires the support of local City Councilwoman, Jannie Blackwell. To date, she has refused to support the change. 

Now I'm tempted to skewer Blackwell for this opposition/inaction. After all, I can't think of a single good reason to oppose/derail this development. But I'll refrain because we have no idea what Blackwell's thoughts on the project are.

Instead, I'll skewer her for refusing to explain why she has not acted on the request for a zoning change. Blackwell's refusal to comment/return calls when contacted both by Saffron, and subsequently by a reporter for the Daily Pennsylvanian represents an utter abdication of duty. She owes it to her constituents to explain her thinking if she is going to derail what looks like it would be a positive development for the neighborhood. 

If she continues to refuse to do so, the local media needs to continue to draw attention to her behavior, and a concerted campaign needs to begin (led by media voices like the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board, as well as community groups) to encourage voters to remove Blackwell from office. One cannot credibly claim to represent people when she will not explain her rationale for seemingly opposing the wishes of her constituents. 

I've written a fair amount about what I wish the media would refrain from doing in terms of "holding politicians accountable (see yesterday's blog)." But this is the perfect case for investigative journalism and the media watchdog function.

If Blackwell won't answer questions, then it is incumbent on the local press to investigate why she is standing in the way of this development. Sadly, constituents are not likely to get an answer from the Councilwoman without media intervention that forces her hand. 

Maybe her opposition is legitimate. I might not agree with her judgment, but we don't elect our representatives with the expectation that they will agree with us 100% of the time. But it is also possible that her refusal to explain her thinking is indicative of something far more nefarious, and that is why the press cannot let this story rest. Doing so, would send the wrong message to developers, neighborhood groups, and politicians throughout the city. 

Blackwell's behavior is nothing new from members of Philadelphia's City Council, who often take advantage of a lack of scrutiny to play favorites, make demands, and run their districts as fiefdoms. But it cannot continue to be acceptable. 

If we want a city propelled by forward thinking development and planning, we must reward U3 Ventures, the Thylan Group, and the neighborhood groups that participated in this process. We must let politicians know that encouraging and taking part in such efforts will be met with praise, and attempting to derail them will draw scorn, skepticism, and electoral defeats. 

Why the Philadelphia School Reform Committee Did the Right Thing in the Wrong Way

UPDATE 10/15: This New York Times article does a nice job of explaining the origins of the problem, the bleak condition of Philadelphia's schools, and offers both sides' takes on the SRC's action. The article provides more evidence that state funding cuts have caused the problem. It does not, however, tackle the core topic of this post, which was, if the funding doesn't come from changes to teachers' compensation, is there another realistic potential source? 


To be honest, I write this blog not liking either of my potential options. 

On the one hand, I agree with Will Bunch, who labeled the decision by the School Reform Commission (SRC) to unilaterally abrogate the contract of Philadelphia's schoolteachers with the purpose of cutting teachers' (and retired teachers) benefits a "heartbreaking act of staggering cowardice (Mayor Nutter correctly labeled the decision "not the city's proudest moment").

The SRC members ought to be ashamed of themselves. At the very least, they owed teachers the courtesy of a meeting scheduled in advance and advertised so teachers could come and present their case as to why this change should not have been made. 

Beyond process, I hate to see teachers compensation packages cut. I've openly advocated in two separate blogs (here and here) for dramatically increased teacher compensation. I truly think that such increases are integral to fixing the American education system—especially in inner city school districts. Attracting and retaining the best teachers requires adequate compensation to compete with suburban districts and other professions. 

I also think its immoral to cut benefits for retired teachers (though a legitimate argument can be made that the taxpayers shouldn't be paying for vision and dental benefits for them). They worked in good faith for a certain set of benefits, and to take those benefits away from them now, after retirement, lacks honor. 

And yet, if I had been on the School Reform Commission, I would have very, very reluctantly supported this action— though I would have insisted on a more transparent and classy procedure. Why?

The state of Pennsylvania proved this summer that it is disinclined to give Philadelphia the freedom to generate more funds for its schools (let alone providing greater funding). The state legislature dragged its feet all summer before finally passing a bill to allow Philadelphia to adopt a $2 per pack cigarette tax to partially close a whopping $81 million gap in the School District's budget. 

The bill should have taken about 30 seconds to pass. From a conservative perspective, it amounted to support for the local governance that conservatives supposedly favor (but conveniently and hypocritically oppose when it comes to letting localities enact policies that they dislike). From a liberal perspective, it provided crucial millions to keep the schools open and moderately functional. 

Additionally, neither the legislature, nor suburban Philadelphians, have shown any inclination to regionalize the funding for Philadelphia's schools — as would be just and logical (how about adding that $2 per pack cigarette tax in all of Philadelphia's ring counties as well?) 

While I support soliciting private contributions to Philadelphia's schools (how about Comcast computer labs in every school?), such contributions are unlikely to alleviate the massive structural problems faced by the school district. 

These problems stem from a flawed system that provides much of the funding for our schools through local property taxes. Thus, as white flight happened in the second half of the twentieth century, the property tax base in the city eroded, and created a dramatic disparity between how much the city could spend on its students, and how much wealthy suburban districts spend on their students (again I explained the need for regional funding in point 5 in this blog). 

In Pennsylvania, I also blame the state for taking control of Philadelphia's schools without adequately funding them. I don't want to hear from legislators about how Philadelphia measures up in terms of per pupil spending across the state (spending as much per pupil in Philadelphia as you do in a rural county isn't going to buy you the same level of teacher because the cost of living is higher), or about how much money the state provides for Philadelphia's schools. When countless schools have shuttered libraries, no nurses, no guidance counselors, unacceptable class sizes, and countless other programs missing, the state is an abysmal, immoral failure. 

But facing this structural situation, I think the School Reform Commission did something noxious—but necessary. The SRC estimates that the changes in teacher's compensation will generate an additional $70 million per year beginning next year. So long as that money is invested directly into the schools, it promises to provide critical services that Philadelphia's students deserve. 

We owe students better than schools without a nurse, a librarian or a guidance counselor. Students have suffered through a 15% reduction of staff over the last 2 years. We must give them better by whatever means necessary. 

Thus, I'm reluctantly left to conclude that providing adequate schools required the SRC's decision. If the teacher's union wants to offer an alternative, realistic proposal for producing the extra funds, I'm all ears. But if the alternative is demanding that the state offer more up more funds, well, they are 100% right, but it likely won't happen. 

Even if Democrat Tom Wolf wins November's gubernatorial election, he's almost certain to have at least half of the state legislature controlled by conservative Republicans who aren't inclined to accept any proposal to raise taxes or fees— let alone one that targets funding specifically to Philadelphia (many of them have built careers out of Philadelphia bashing). 

Daniel Denvir does an excellent job of presenting the case as to why these cuts do more harm than good. I agree with him on the dangers of cutting teacher compensation as I outlined above. He also correctly notes that Philadelphia teachers have already suffered from the school district's awful budget situation. 

Indeed, I can't fathom anyone arguing that teachers ought to receive less compensation or that cutting teacher compensation benefits students or society. It doesn't. There is minimal justification for this decision in a vacuum. 

But Denvir leaves out a crucial point— even if the SRC admitted that the Corbett cuts bear responsibility for much of the funding crisis for the Philadelphia schools as Denvir suggests, would that lead to their reversal? My judgment is no, because I don't see a Republican legislature agreeing to undo them. In fact, I think the SRC, the mayor, and the public could all crusade to undo the cuts, and conservative legislators from the rest of the state would ignore them and face no electoral risk in their conservative districts.

Thus, if the cuts won't be reversed, then the cause matters less than what potential solutions exist. I simply do not see an alternative proposal to raise $70 million under the current political conditions (To be clear, I can come up with plenty of better solutions, but none has of becoming reality anytime soon). 

I do believe that the SRC would have a lot more credibility if its members came out and honestly admitted that the Corbett cuts created the problem. They should be arguing that those cuts forced them to make this decision. They should explain that no other reasonably plausible avenue exists to find $70 million more per year to fund crucially necessary programs in the schools—programs that cannot be done without for even a day longer. They should have coupled this decision with a promise to fight for increased state funding, and a promise to give teachers a raise when they secure additional funding. 

Nonetheless, when forced to choose between the interests of teachers and students, I'll reluctantly side with the students, though with a queasy feeling in my stomach. Teachers don't deserve this slap in the face. If we had any future oriented visionaries in government, they would find a way to dramatically increase teacher compensation. 

Indeed, I hope that someday soon the country, the state, and the region come to their senses and realize the importance of treating our teachers better. Hopefully, they will then offer the funding necessary to dramatically increase the compensation for Philadelphia's teachers.

Until then, the teachers should focus on agitating for broader structural changes, rather than fighting the SRC unless they can come up with plausible alternative means for generating $70 million per year. 


A Prescription for Education Reform

The American education system from pre-K through graduate school is a mess. Countless problems abound, and rarely do I hear policymakers propose new or creative solutions to the problem. 

Their proposals are typically warmed over standbys like more accountability provided through standardized testing (which can produce mind numbingly boring classes aimed at getting students to memorize information that will appear on the tests). 

The most "innovative" recent idea may be the campaign led by the former journalist Campbell Brown and others to end teacher tenure and provide merit based pay. While I think an end to tenure and the transition to merit based pay is a great idea, I can't stand these groups.

They  pretend as though ending teacher tenure will magically fix our education system and transform inner-city public schools. In reality, tenure reform is only one element of a comprehensive solution. 

By itself, ending tenure will just allow localities to cut high salaried teachers, and replace them with cheaper, less experienced teachers (though they'll assure you that that isn't why the teachers are being let go) every time the local populace is angry about tax levels, or costs go up elsewhere (local politicians aren't any more courageous than national ones).

But the end of tenure as part of a total rethinking of our educational system might offer hope. As such, I offer my prescription based on 25 years inside of classrooms as a student and teacher. 

1. Abolish tenure— too often everyone from administrators to students to teachers to parents knows who the bad teachers are. I had high school teachers in 2001 or 2002 who were still using tests from the 1970s.

Once when I asked a teacher who was a former union official about bad teachers, he replied, "we know who they are, but the job of the union is to defend them." This sort of tone deaf thinking explains why teacher's unions and tenure, which serve very valuable functions, have gotten such a bad rap. 

2. Dramatically increase teacher salaries and tie pay to teaching quality— I'll offer one possible method for increasing salaries in a separate blog later today, but I don't see how we expect to attract the best and brightest in society to teaching if teachers are paid less than just about every other type of professional.

There is no substitute for attracting our best minds to teaching, because these people are more likely to be creative and think outside the box, instead of teaching to the test and offering the sorts of boring classes that we all hated in grade school. 

3. Less testing— I'll share a story. I had fantastic Spanish teachers in high school. We learned tons of Spanish. But they used a method that involved tons of pop quizzes and produced all sorts of stress. As such, when I got a 5 on the AP Spanish exam, and placed out of my college language requirement, I said hasta la vista to Spanish.

Who needed the stress and rote memorization? (I can see some of you out there shaking your heads, and thinking that I need to toughen up, but teaching someone something, and getting them invested in and passionate about a subject are two different things).

Standardized tests take valuable educational time away from students and teachers. They have their place, especially in elementary school when we need to ensure that all students learn the basics of reading, mathematics, science, and history.

Nonetheless, we have so overdone testing, as to potentially cripple our best teachers' ability to engage students (ask some really great teachers what they think about standardized tests if you don't believe me). 

4. More creative teaching and less one sized fits all education— the problem with so much testing is that it produces boring classes. It's easier to drill students on content than to let them blog, or to have them perform exercises that put them into the shoes of historical figures to evaluate their decisions. 

But drilling and memorizing are unlikely to spark a passion for the subject matter. Additionally,  there is only so much content that can be memorized, and over time, much of it slips away. We ought to be focusing on producing creative, adaptive thinkers, who can read critically, write well, and apply knowledge to new situations. 

Far better are methods that recognize the individuality of each student and offer them the opportunity to learn the same skills through real world experiences. 

If you force everyone into the same box, you risk losing students who might not be all that stimulated by the traditional course tracks, but who might be captivated by equally rigorous classes on different subjects, or by different ways of learning. 

What do I mean? Philadelphia's Workshop School ( and is a perfect example of a place that gets it.

Students have some traditional classes. But they also learn traditional subjects through experiential, project based learning (for example turning a closest into a recording studio, or building a miniature solar panel). Students generate their own questions and work together to solve them. 

To provide an example of my own, students who are passionate about food could build a business plan for a restaurant, grow their produce in the school garden, learn cooking techniques, etc. This exercise could involve skills from the traditional english, math, computer science, home economics, biology, and environmental studies classes. 

The downsides of this model are that it could be quite expensive, and it doesn't lend itself to traditional metrics like pen and paper tests. Financially, if such education, at least at the high school level, produces a more creative populace, it's not inconceivable that it might lead to a more robust economy, which would in turn produce greater tax revenue.

It might also require reexamination of our government spending. Some programs might need to be cut. But, again, we spend millions each year on programs designed to solve problems caused by our failed educational system, so we might save money in the long run. 

In terms of evaluation, I'm puzzled by the use of pen and paper examinations in general. They aren't how we're evaluated on a day to day basis in life. So why not create more realistic assessments?

Why not ask local professionals to contribute to schools by assessing students' projects in the way lawyers judge moot courts? To return to the example above, a local chef, an advertising executive, and a farmer might evaluate the work done by the students. 

What I know for sure is that the classes that most excite my college political science and history students are not the ones where I lecture at them. They are the classes where students get to do activities that make them think and debate, and that often help them to learn about the political process by experiencing it. 

5. Regionalize school funding. Do we really expect students to succeed in schools without libraries, nurses, guidance counselors, and countless other essentials? Some suburban school districts may spend 1.5-2x as much per student as urban school districts do.

To give examples from my own area, in the last year we have data, 2011-2012, suburban Lower Merion, Radnor, and Cheltenham spent $22,140, $18,117, and $17,922 respectively per pupil, while Philadelphia spent $12,351, in spite of having more impoverished students who often need more educationally because of deficits brought about by poverty)

Given the historical reasons that variances in property tax bases developed between cities and suburbia (white flight, redlining, restrictive covenants, and all the legal machinations tied to them—see Kevin Kruse's White Flight and Tom Sugrue's Sweet Land of Liberty among many others for details on these processes), this disparity in per pupil spending is immoral, and fails to reflect the fact that suburbanites take advantage of the city around which they live. 

6. Stop viewing charter schools as the solution to urban education problems. I like the general concept of charter schools. But the current model is broken. They divert funding from traditional schools without reducing costs for those schools  (for example, if each school in a district lost 25 students to a charter school, they would likely still need to offer the same number of classes, but without the funding attached to those 25 students). 

Additionally, charter schools should be used solely to experiment with innovative models and methods (for example something like the workshop school discussed above, or a performing arts high school).

But regular schools run by private charter school companies just make traditional schools try to do more with less. That's not to say that mismanagement isn't a problem in schools. It is in many places. But charter schools don't solve that problem. At most they are putting a band on a gash that really needs 10 stitches. 

7. Get corporate America more involved. Companies put their names on everything from stadiums to subway stops. Why not invest in schools? Lots of companies could use the positive PR boost from donating to local schools and/or buying naming rights to parts of a school. It's one method to generate more funding for our schools without raising taxes.  

Is this prescription perfect? No. But if we gave teachers more latitude to innovate and paid them at a level commiserate with what other professionals make, I suspect that we would solve many of our educational problems. 

It's mystifying that we so dramatically under compensate a profession doing one of society's most important jobs (which is why I'll devote an entire separate blog to one potential solution). 

It's also odd that so many of our educational methods remain static even as we see that creativity and innovation are the keys to success in 21st century (i.e. Apple and Google).