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Beg and borrow because tomorrow is another day

• Mike Thomas

The Philadelphia school district is taking the rather unprecedented step of borrowing $300 million to stay afloat. This is akin to a starving man munching on his toes.

And it is on top of $3 billion in outstanding bonds. Philadelphia is paying today’s bills by borrowing against the future.

This might work if the school district could grow its way out of the problem.

But Philadelphia has seen a whopping 10 percent decline in student enrollment in the past five years, and its pension costs will more than triple between now and 2017. So what we have is a business with a falling customer base and rapidly rising expenses.

This means efficiency will plunge as per-student costs rise.  The district may have to close up to 64 schools and lay off thousands of employees. It is looking at a sharp increase of charter schools as well as a decentralized, portfolio approach to schools management.

Of course the unions aren’t happy.

“Like Chicago, it’s a battle for the heart and soul of public education,” said Randi Weingarten, equating reformers to people who “don’t evidence a commitment to public education and all the children.”

Equating support for public education to propping up massive, crumbling bureaucracies is wearing thin, particularly with a growing number of urban mayors. Plowing more money into school districts like those in Chicago and Philadelphia is less and less about educating children and more about paying off the excesses of the past, particularly skyrocketing pension costs. Unburdened with these costs, charters offer a much more efficient model, which is why parents and urban mayors are turning to them.

Union leaders considered Chicago a victory, oblivious to future budget deficits that range in the billions of dollars. Public employee unions are doing to their cities and school districts what private sector unions did to many of their employers.

They are helping drive them into bankruptcy. Of course they were aided and abetted by political leaders all too willing to make promises that would get them out of current predicaments, with no thought given to the future ramifications because they would not be around to face them.

That is what we are seeing unfold in Philadelphia with this borrowing spree.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at